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A Metric of Individual Privacy in the Information Age

Copyright (c) 2003 Geoff Peters

In this brief discussion I present a metric suitable for addressing the hypothesis that “individual privacy has been eroding since the advent of the second Industrial Revolution.” By “second Industrial Revolution” I understand to be the period of 1860—1900, where many new technologies, including electricity, were invented.


The metric I propose is to measure the number of “private data records” that exist for a particular individual, i.e. that contain information that the individual would consider to be “private”. Additionally, we should measure how many groups/people have access to these data records, and how many of these groups/people share or access the information without the individual’s consent. Other important factors to measure are: the average lifetime of a particular record, and the amount of time required to access a particular record.


For example, in 1860, before the advent of computer databases, governments and organizations kept data records about individuals, usually in the form of paper files. Such records would include criminal records, birth and death registries, and marriage records. However, the number of such records would be limited by practical considerations such as the space requirements of keeping voluminous paper stacks. In addition, much of this information, such as birth records and marriage records, would not even be considered “private” by the individuals concerned, since a birth or marriage was usually publicly celebrated in the local community. Also, because of lack of copying technologies, the records could not be easily shared or distributed, thus limiting how many people/groups had access to these data records. Because of a limited amount of space to store paper, old records would necessarily be discarded after a certain period, thus limiting the average lifetime of a particular record. The amount of time required to access a particular record would be high, as manual indexing systems would need to be used.


Today, in 2003, the recent invention and proliferation of large computer databases has had a large impact on privacy, which this metric shows. The improvements in database technology have mirrored the erosion of individual privacy. The number of records linked to a certain individual has increased hundredfold - not only do governments keep large databases about their citizens, but also do non-profit organizations, businesses, credit agencies, and others. Database technology has vastly removed the space restrictions to storing large amounts of data. What is more difficult to measure is how many groups/people share or access this information without the individual’s consent, since often the individual concerned does not even know that his or her privacy is being violated. Data stored in databases does not deteriorate with time, so records could be conceivably kept for hundreds of years. Of course, due to database technology, the time required to access a record containing “private” information has reduced from minutes or hours to mere milliseconds.


Geoff Peters, Simon Fraser University, 2003.

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