In 1891, Arthur Conan-Doyle wrote a Sherlock Holmes short story entitled “A Case of Identity”. In it, he solves a mystery in part by determining that several different letters were all typed on the same typewriter:
"It is a curious thing," remarked Holmes, "that a typewriter has really quite as much individuality as a man's handwriting. Unless they are quite new no two of them write exactly alike. Some letters get more worn than others, and some wear only on one side. Now, you remark in this note of yours, Mr. Windibank, that in every case there is some little slurring over the e, and a slight defect in the tail of the r. There are fourteen other characteristics, but those are the more obvious."
Jump forward 122 years, and we learn that users can be identified within a half a percent margin of error based simply on how they strike the keys on a keyboard. According to associate professor Morris Chang at Iowa State University:
“These pauses between words, searches for unusual characters and spellings of unfamiliar words, all have to do with our past experiences, our learning experiences,” Chang said. “And so we call them cognitive fingerprints which manifest themselves in typing rhythms.”
As with all recognition software/technology, this information could be used in several ways. Chang’s group emphasizes the usefulness for security, and has devised an application to continuously authenticate users.
But surely the technology could one day be employed to identify the same person using multiple computers, no matter where that person is located physically? One is reminded of the recent (somewhat alarmist) letter from Sen. Ed Markey to the FTC about companies’ ability to track users across multiple devices based on the analysis of behavioral patterns, as described in a NY Times piece. The point is that no one needs to install a tracking device in your briefcase or on your car—or embed a tracking gif to follow your online movements—in order to have a pretty good idea of where you are and what you are doing.
And what you will be doing next. The “data exhaust” generated by our use of technology is being mined in all sorts of ways. Fascinating-if-creepy advances in the field of predictive analytics in the consumer realm, flowing from Big Data, ensure that companies will be able anticipate many of our moves both online and in the physical world, both in the aggregate and—more troublingly—on an individual basis.
Which brings us back to the NSA. This firm recently assisted with an amicus brief for the PEN American Center, a non-profit association of writers that includes poets, playwrights, essayists, novelists, editors, screenwriters, journalists, literary agents and translators, in the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles v. National Security Agency case pending in the U.S District Court for the Northern District of California (13-CV-03287 JSW). In that brief, PEN American outlined why the collection and analysis of telephone metadata from every call made in the United States is a huge concern for writers, and for all individuals. Metadata—the phone number of each caller and recipient, the serial number of the phones involved, the time and duration of each call; and often the location of the participants—is surprisingly revealing.
The former general counsel of the NSA, Stewart Baker, recently stated that the NSA really didn’t need to actually monitor the CONTENT of phone calls, because the metadata about those calls reveals far more about us:
“Metadata absolutely tells you everything about somebody’s life,” he said with admirable candor. “If you have enough metadata you don’t really need content…. [It’s] sort of embarrassing how predictable we are as human beings.”
See Alan Rusbridger, “The Snowden Leaks and the Public”, The New York Review of Books, Nov. 21, 2013.
There may not be any geniuses at the NSA to rival Sherlock Holmes (then again, who knows?), but with today’s computing power and analytical tools, and a massive amount of contextual data, our lives may be open books.