Monday, July 20, 2009

Silicon And Its Discontents

Technology scares me. I still love it, but with the Greatest Generation of Social Engineers in the White House, the implications for personal freedom and privacy are quietly terrifying.

The guys over at Google keep talking about 'scale,' which is the notion that a technology solution for a given problem can serve a very large number of customers, more efficiently than whatever it was you had before.

A simple example is the web server -- publish your blog once and anyone with a computer can read your paranoid scribbling and profane ranting.

But with scale comes the potential for centralized control and high levels of surveillance.

Amazon just deleted -- of all things -- George Orwell's novel 1984 from all the Kindle e-books in the USA. Apparently the publisher didn't have the rights to sell digital versions in the USA (oops), so Amazon deleted the book from the account of everyone who bought it and issued them a refund. I suppose I'm naive, but I never realized to me that Amazon could reach out and delete anything they sold from a hard drive.

Legally, Amazon has a watertight case. Without a 'recall' they'd be an accomplice in selling stolen property, but it's still terrifying. Its only a short hop from deleting what I sold you to knowing the entire contents of the hard drive that you bought, own and consider 'private'.

Will ebooks be as ubiquitous as ipods and cell phones in 20 years? Will vendors like Amazon know what you have on your personal hard drive and be able to ban it whenever they want?

Next on my list of Ominous Developments -- digitizing medical records. Hailed as a panacea for eliminating waste and inefficiency in the health care system, this is actually a large crock of shit, and anyone who has ever worked on enterprise level databases and applications knows it.

Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh computerized their entire health care system in 2002, requiring nearly everything that was once written down to be typed or entered into a computer. The system was so badly designed that in the emergency room, one doctor had to attend a patient while the other typed instructions into the computer. Emergency transfer patients began dying twice as fast, after the new system was installed. Nearly everything else the doctors did was slower and less efficient.

In 2003, Cedars-Sinai Hospital in LA tore out a computerized health system and junked it, after the doctors refused to use it.

And even when the systems work, the fact that they are so massive and scalable means that your privacy, your rights and your job are more at risk than ever.

Just a week ago, the Canadian Press reported that hackers broke into the Alberta Health Services computer system and viewed the medical files of 11,582 people, including names, addresses, health-care numbers, lab test results and diagnoses, officials said yesterday.

In the past, this blog has mentioned the Virginia state site used by pharmacists to track prescription drug abuse. Hackers copied, then deleted records on more than 8 million patients and replaced the site's homepage with a ransom note demanding $10 million for the return of the records, according to a posting on, an online clearinghouse for leaked documents.

Still want the results of your AIDS test, or the dermatologists record of your genital wart removal, or your prescription for Prozac or Viagra up there?


Atom Smasher said...

I think it's inevitable and a little scary. The concept of privacy is even more diluted than ever. In my current job I often have access to amazing records of amazing things via the wonders of electronic databases and other things, and I and my colleagues are consistantly amazed at the lack of interest in security we find amongst the people entrusted with this information.

Jay G said...

"A simple example is the web server -- publish your blog once and anyone with a computer can read your paranoid scribbling and profane ranting."

You talkin' to me?

MeatAxe said...

hi jay,

no, that one was entirely aimed at me. but hey, if the shoe fits :)

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