In Search Of: Unicorns, Big Foot, and Data Privacy

What does data privacy have in common with unicorns and Big Foot? All three are legends, folklore, myths, socially transmitted oral traditions, etc. With the plethora of programmers, analysts, DBAs, auditors, and hackers (both domestic and international) it is very hard to keep data private. What most organizations strive to practically achieve is data protection.

Data protection can be achieved in several ways. First, data can be anonymized; all personally identifiable information can be removed and replaced with customized identifiers. This practice is often done when converting sensitive/confidential data into public-use data for research purposes. Second, data can be encrypted for point-to-point transmission across private and public networks. Third, data stored in digital files can be password protected. Fourth, data sharing can be protected via legal agreements between the primary custodian and a secondary custodian. In short, it is nearly impossible to keep data untouchable, but there are ways to control access to it.

(Image: Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock)

(Image: Maksim Kabakou/Shutterstock)

Why so much interest in data and the need to build a fence around it? Because data has market value. Databases are imbued with the power to create wealth. Databases contain customer income and spending characteristics, Databases contain genetic markers and biological traits. Databases show us where registered voters live. Databases show us which neighborhoods are wealthy, which neighborhoods are well educated and which neighborhoods have balanced mixes of homes and apartments. Databases facilitate national and international security. Databases allow us to store health records on cloud servers so that they are retrievable in case of natural disasters. Databases show where registered sex offenders live. Data allows us to explain and predict natural, behavioral and social phenomena.

Accordingly, data creates career paths. Any field with 'ology' as the suffix needs data. Data created Sybase, Oracle, and MS Access professionals. Data created private/public key certification programs. Data created data warehousing professionals. Data created Dropbox, iPad cloud storage and the Google search engine. To the extent that complementary and supplementary professions/industries depend upon data, there is a need to sustain it at all costs.

In that light, data is seldom truly private. Pragmatically the goal is to protect it/control access to it. And to the extent that data is synonymous with currency, custodians can be tempted to trade access to it. Think about your social security number. Who has it? The IRS, MVA, your health care provider, your health insurer, your employer, your bank, perhaps a branch of the military or corrections system -- a lot of entities have your personal identification number. Hence, your most direct identifier is far from private, but it is protected (we hope -- I was also a victim of the data breach by China). And it has high market value.

What are your thoughts about data privacy? Is sacrificing personal privacy for the security of the greater good a worthy goal? Is it OK to financially profit by selling information? Can analytics help to protect data? Please share.

Bryan Beverly, Statistician, Bureau of Labor Statistics

Bryan K. Beverly is from Baltimore. He has a BA in sociology from Morgan State University and an MAS degree in IT management from Johns Hopkins University. His continuing education consists of project management training through the ESI International/George Washington University programs. He began his career in 1984, the same year he was introduced to SAS software. Over the course of nearly 30 years, he has used SAS for data processing, analytics, report generation, and application development on mainframes, mini-computers, and PCs. Bryan has worked in the private sector, public sector, and academia in the Baltimore/Washington region. His work initially focused on programming, but over the years has expanded into project management and business development. Bryan has participated in in-house SAS user groups and SAS user group conferences, and has published in SAS newsletters, as well as company-based newsletters. Over time, his publications have expanded from providing SAS technical tips to examining the sociological, philosophical, financial, and political contexts in which IT is deployed. He believes that the key to a successful IT career is to maintain your skills and think like the person who signs your paycheck.

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Re: Post-Truth era?
  • 1/30/2017 11:32:34 PM

James, perhaps. Most people are just trying to make it through the day, whether because of illness, wild children, stress at work, bills --- you name it. Life is tough enough when there's stability in the world, let alone when uncertainty seems to increase with every headline.

Re: data
  • 1/30/2017 1:23:04 PM

We should, although a challenge will be what is the standard for that scoring. Who determines how well a story is veriable.

Re: Post-Truth era?
  • 1/24/2017 4:46:24 PM

@Broadway. These days that last one-third (who don't know what to believe when it comes to truth and untruth) is more like one half, and most of them have given up trying.

Re: Post-Truth era?
  • 1/23/2017 11:17:57 PM

Lyndon, one breakdown I heard is that 1/3 of the people will try to correct the untruths, 1/3 of the people will believe them, and 1/3 won't know what to believe. The goal of the tellers of untruth is to get that last 1/3 to give up on ever trying.

Re: Information For Sale
  • 1/23/2017 6:40:45 PM

@Louis Well said as always! Thanks for the feedback!

Re: Information For Sale
  • 1/23/2017 4:37:45 PM

@Bryant   I meant ethically.   While I understand your arguments and do not have any problems with them.  I think  the selling of information is ethically questionable as a whole.

Sure, those that sell your data do give you the option to opt out, but as you surly understand, if you really need to use the source, what choice do you have ?   These companies know that the layman will never go through all of the written small print and most likely will not read it at all and if they do disagree - what are they to do if they want to use the resource ?

This intentional "boxing in" of the user is unethical  IMO.   And this situation comes well before one even  considers whether the issue is legal or not.  

And even though this practice may be legal, this type of coercion is unethical at best. The mutual acknowledgment that is so vital to this question is never achieved due to the circumstance described.  Which leaves companies to make a decision.  Do we sell this information that we know has been provided without a clear understanding of the consequences ?   If the answer is yes, then to your point it is most often legal, but it is ethical ?  I don't believe so.

But I understand your point about "where there is no law there is no sin" which brings up the issue of regulation or lack thereof as it applies to data and the selling and profiting from it.

Re: data
  • 1/23/2017 3:41:44 PM

@Lyndon_Henry     Thank you for the link.  This is really disturbing because it means to me that "rational deliberation" no longer matters  and we are seeing the results of this. There is no denying it and yet I am still having trouble accepting it.

Have we become a nation of National Enquirer readers ?  Even though most of the articles appear to be clear nonsense, it doesn't matter because one will believe what they want to be believe ?

I read somewhere that this tactic was in fact used during the run up to the election, all sorts of "fake news" was plastered all over this type of reading material.  Those who had always believed the crazy headlines on the front page had no problem continuing to think the latest Clinton headline was true.  And this goes back to quote you reference - it doesn't matter as long as it reinforces the opinions already held.

This is scary stuff, because I don't see this correcting itself anytime soon - only worsening.   And I would have to agree, we have created a society of the "willfully ignorant" and rational thinker's worldwide should be concerned to no end.

When we allow rhetoric and outright misinformation to be taken as truth and to outweigh rational thought then we as a society will create and get what it deserves.  Democracy depends on it  and without this check and balance we are doomed to the whims of "fake news makers".  Will this situation improve going forward ?  I doubt it because this millennial generation will take the first search result from Google as Gospel.

This is an embarrassing outcome for those who have fought and died for our right to practice reason as a gate keeper of constructive progress.

Re: Post-Truth era?
  • 1/23/2017 11:16:30 AM


Have the principle and value of honesty become irrelevant to a significant swath of the population as well as the new administration in Washington?

Since a significant number of people (states with popular vote majorities) and a number of significant people (states with swing electoral votes) dictated the outcome, I would say that the persons elected are mirrors of those than pushed the buttons, checked the boxes and dimped the chads.  They are truly our representatives; they are the numerators and we are the denominators.

Re: Post-Truth era?
  • 1/23/2017 5:43:55 AM


Brian writes

 I think that instead of post-truth, we can call it 'alternative truth' - a post modern expression of competing truth claims of equal weight (smile). 


The Trump administration's latest foray into relabeling lies/falsehoods as "alternative facts" actually prompted a bit of an admonition from the Merriam-Webster dictionary. The controversy is also elaborated in an article in Huffington Post: 

The Dictionary Shuts Down Kellyanne Conway's Idea Of 'Alternative Facts'

The attempt to confuse and diminish the distinction between factual truth and deception also elicited a cautionary essay from journalist Robert Kuttner: 

Orwell, Hitler And Trump

All of the Trump/alt-right's jaw-dropping recent effort to confuse and diminish the value and need of truth and competent, reliable factual information makes me wonder if this heralds the emergence of a troubling new paradigm within the USA's social and cultural norms. How many schoolteachers voted for Trump? Scientists? Have the principle and value of honesty become irrelevant to a significant swath of the population as well as the new administration in Washington?


Re: Post-Truth era?
  • 1/22/2017 8:52:17 PM

@Lyndon, I think that instead of post-truth, we can call it 'alternative truth' - a post modern expression of competing truth claims of equal weight (smile).

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