Friday, April 19, 2013

Privacy, Anonymity, and Apathy

I don't like to talk about work on the blog, partly because I am often blogging on slow days at the office, and also because I really, really like being paid. But no one reads this, and if I ever get big enough that even my boss has heard of me, then I will probably be big enough to live off ad revenues anyhow.

The FCC enacted a regulation a few months back. I haven't actually read the regulation (it isn't fun when you have to do it), but essentially it says that polling firms need to provide a contact number for complaints. I, by the way, work at a polling firm. As an aside, this tremendously small change is mandated by the federal government and ultimately backed with the full force of the strongest band of professional killers and kidnappers to ever gather in the history of the planet. All that power, the power to fine, imprison, or ultimately kill, as the unconvicted suspect in Boston learned yesterday, employed for the earth-shattering purpose of making sure the complaints line is manned by our company and not the call center, and invoked at the whim of one man, Julius Genachowski, who was appointed by a man elected by a group of people who were in turn elected in statewide elections where their names were often not displayed anywhere on the ballot. Of the five hundred fourty-six individuals who could be said to comprise the leadership of this country, who are paid attention to and held accountable at regular intervals, it is entirely possible that not a one of them is even aware that this policy has been promulgated in their name to be backed with the full faith, force, and credit of our unshakable union.

Prior to this, it was sufficient for the call center (who directly interacts with the respondents) to have a complaint line. This makes sense because nearly all of the complaints are either "take me off your list" or "the guy on the phone is a jerkface", neither of which affects us, who just sends scripts and phone numbers and gets back data (they compile their own do-not-call list that they apply to all their clients). Once in a blue moon they will forward some actually relevant complaint that we can deal with.

But now we have to give them one of our telephone numbers. We didn't set up a whole new line for complaints, ain't nobody got time for that. Instead they just gave out my line. So I get complaints. So far we have gotten three requests to be removed from our lists, which were "forwarded to the relevant department heads" snicker. For all that I like to style myself "Chief Post-Processing Analytics Engineer And Majestic Potentate Of Internet Programming, Collections, And Synergies", we don't have department heads because there are six of us. I once looked at getting a plaque made to put on my desk, but a nameplate that large was all kinds of expensive, which I guess makes my paygrade above my paygrade, or some such.

Also, pro-tip; If you want to be removed from a phone list, tell the person on the phone RIGHT THEN AND THERE. Either it is a volunteer who doesn't give a shit and will be ignoring your complaint anyway, OR it is a professional phone center that has a process in place and will put you on the call center's centralized DNC list, exempting you from that call AND ALL OTHER CALLS FROM ALL OTHER PHONE SHOP CLIENTS. If you call me after the fact, I have no idea who you are, am going to do the absolute minimal shit job I can do, and you will still be on the lists of everyone else in the entire world.

Anyway, today I was really busy, had all sorts of important things to be doing that demanded my total concentration. So that's when the phone rings.

"Hello this is company, how can I help you?" I say that, not the caller, because it would be weird if people were calling the complaint line trying to improve my day.

"So," she hems and haws for a bit, "I am taking your survey right now." Oh, great, because we only have one survey in the whole world, lovingly handcrafted and sent right to you, "and I am on the question about [topic redacted]" well, praise Christ that I happened to hear about that particular topic when a co-worker was bitching about that survey so I know what you are talking about, I must be a goddamn mind reader, "and I was wondering, if I give a negative answer, will they know it was me?"

To this question I give The Correct Answer, "All responses will only be presented in an aggregated and anonymized format. Privacy is very important to us at company." This is considered to be The Correct Answer for two reasons:

  1. It makes the respondent feel better, and more importantly it makes them go away.
  2. It is true. Technically true, which we all know is the best kind of true.
Certainly, when the data is presented, it will all be anonymized and aggregated. The chart will say that 73% said yes, 20% said no, and 7% had popsicles so far up in their colons that they were unable to respond intelligibly.

Note: Not An Actual Chart From My Employer. We use SPSS, not R.
That is because our clients want to know about the very important issue. They want to know if their product launch will succeed, or if they will get re-elected, or why their customers are such whiny bitches all the time. What they absolutely, positively, do not care about and would not even if they had the time, is YOUR OPINION. You are not a special snowflake, your are not made of magic, and just going by the numbers from our recent survey, you are eight times out of ten A) wrong, B) ignorant, C) borderline illiterate, and D) stupid. When we (not actually we, more of a they because the boss doesn't let me get within ten miles of clients, and for very good reason) present the results, the executives in the presentation do not say, "Yes, but what does Alonzo down on Maple Street think?". They do not say, "That sure is an astute response there, what are the rest of that person's opinions so we can do that." Your privacy is safe because nobody gives a fuck.

However, every economist has two hands (My macro professor had no fewer than eight), and on the other hand the absolute fact is that your privacy is dead. We at the office have to seek out data on people, but all we really want to know is the general area you live in, your phone number, and occasionally whether you have voted or not. Just by looking for that, we end up finding your exact street address, your partisan preferences, your annual voting history in November, Primary, and minor elections, your voter registration, your name, your spouse's name and some or all of your children's names, all of which just sits on the file, regarded by us as junk data that we aren't going to use, because, again, nobody gives a fuck.

But when you have this much data, you wonder just how much more there is out there. So once I did a search for myself in all the databases. So if I actually wanted to hunt that caller down and give them hell for expressing a negative opinion, what could I do?

Since they called, they are on my radar. The office, just like nearly everyone, has caller ID, so I have at least a last name, and it was a fairly distinct and memorable name. Let us say it came up as Joe Smith. When the data comes in, because it ultimately came either from a voter registration file or a membership list the client provided (or both), it will have Joe Smith's name on it, tied to a unique internal ID number. Joe mentioned on the phone the gender of his children (more than one) just in passing, so if there is more than one Joe Smith I can look for the one making negative comments, and the one with more than one children of that gender, which in a sample of a few hundred to a thousand is almost certain to net me the correct Smith. Joe will have not only answered all the questions for our client, revealing his opinion on the client's actions and behavior which could well be embarrassing or socially awkward depending on the opinions, he will have also at the end answered questions (completely voluntarily - refusal rates rarely exceed 5%, or 10% for the very most sensitive subjects like income) about his demographic status like race, ethnicity, income, home ownership, religion, church attendance, ideology and partisanship, age, gender, marital status, number of children, preferred news sources, existence of a Facebook account, existence of a twitter account and years residing at current address, mostly honestly, all of his own free will. Then I can go into our standard database, which attaches to just about everything we do, and find complete vote history, any cohabitants (and repeat the process on them), voter registration number, address, alternate address, alternate phone numbers and an assortment of demographic information. So far everything I have gotten is either public record or freely provided. From there I can jump into our secondary database of semi-private things, all of which are either public record or freely provided by Joe Smith at some point in his life, but which you can only access by paying a fee, a few thousand dollars for everyone in the State of Texas, and will tell us things like magazine subscriptions, hobbies, "target demographic", partisanship, general partisan beliefs (pro-life, Christian, ACLU supporter), specific partisan beliefs (supported a border fence proposal, opposed a bond measure) and credit card profiles. Already I have a pretty good picture of what Joe Smith looks like, just from the massive databases we accumulate almost by accident going about our daily business. Also, we update our file every two years, so I can check against the last fifteen years of records to see if Joe Smith has taken any previous surveys, but the odds of that are pretty slim.

Still, armed with a name, address, phone number, and a bevy of confirming demographics (to help select a particular Joe Smith when facing an array of them), we can really start to invade some privacy. I close out of our databases, save all of Joe's information and get up out of my chair. Then I sit right the fuck back down and get online because I can know all manner of shit about you without leaving the computer. First thing I do, since Joe is in a large Texas county, is check the appraisal district website. Sticking in the address and confirming the name, I can find out what his house is worth, all the improvements to his house, the chain of title, the taxable value, every taxing district he is in (and thus the school district, and thus make a guess as to what school his children attend and then cross reference with cohabitant ages on file to find out what grade) and any tax penalties like non-payment which could indicate financial troubles. As an added amusement, I pop over to Google Earth to get a top down view of the house, a street view, and detailed driving directions from anywhere in the world. Since Joe is also in a big city, I can check the zoning office online, just in case he is trying to add on a new pool or some such. While we are having fun, I check the sex offender registry, both to find Joe and to see if he has any sex offender neighbors I can tell about his children, then county arrest records, then the occupational licencing records (here is a list of every licensed boxer in the State of Texas). Finally, I check to see (or know in advance, because we ask it as a question) if he has a facebook account and what fun stuff is on there (possibly confirming the size and type of family, as well as uncovering any drunken shenanigans).

If I get more ambitious, I can get up out of my chair and drive down to the Environmental Quality Commission records office (worked there for a few summers) and get a complete environmental report of his property (and then check it against the current state of the property, with fines for every misstatement or violation). I can check PACER and Lexis-Nexus for court reports and news accounts of Joe. 

Then I can compile that into a huge dossier. This is, from what I understand, exactly what modern private detectives do for a living. But I don't, because I don't care. When I get complaints I fantasize about compiling their information and mailing a thousand slanderous leaflets to all their neighbors. In fact, the cost of printing and mailing a thousand letters would be the most expensive and time consuming part of the entire enterprise.

But I don't.

Because I don't care.

And neither does anyone else.

Unless you get famous or piss someone off.

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