There ain’t such thing as privacy

1984 is so last century.

A world without privacy has often been depicted as part of a dystopian nightmare in various works of speculative fiction.  Yet when we are suddenly thrust upon a world where the very notion of privacy seems to be melting before our very eyes, the public’s response is not one of shock, but rather of celebration.  At the heart of the modern privacy debate we cannot ignore the inescapable conclusion that people are perfectly happy to forego their privacy in exchange for something else.  Privacy advocates warn us that we are sleepwalking into the dystopia, yet I am not sure that is the right word, I am sometimes afraid that we are running towards it with open arms.

These thoughts occurred to me as I was reading the remarkable story of how to catch an iPhone thief, where a man from Los Angeles was able to track down the person who stole his iPhone through a combination of geolocation technology, Web 2.0 apps, public databases, search engines, and Streetview. The story reminded me of the phone thief at the opening of Clay Shirky’s “Here Comes Everybody”, as it follows a powerful narrative of comeuppance and justice being served.  We all have had something stolen, and these stories tell us that from time to time the perpetrator will be found, and the goods returned to their rightful owner.

While the iPhone thief story is delightful in its conclusion, I was left with a sour taste in my mouth while reading it.  Was anyone else disturbed by the privacy implications of the tale?  The amount of information available via public search is quite simply staggering.  Imagine the same story, but exchange the guy looking for the iPhone with a stalker, or an employer trying to find more information about their employees, or any other less palatable scenario. From the overwhelmingly positive nature of comments on the blog, and from the comments on Twitter, my guess is that I am in a minority here, hence this rant.

As long as we have our smart phones, gadgets, and search engines, we do not give a damn about privacy.  We freely give away gazillions of data through Facebook so that we can play Farmville.  As long as our iPhone works, we ignore the fact that it can be used to track all of our movements.  Privacy is dead, and we do not care.

Look in the mirror, Big Brother is you.

8 thoughts on “There ain’t such thing as privacy

  1. Granted the ease in which personal information can be collected through technologies such as IPhones, internet etc. it is precisely the debate which the European Commission is looking into with the use of Privacy enhancing technologies to discourage the accumulation of personal information in the first instance (http://ec.europa.eu/justice_home/fsj/privacy/studies/priv-enhancing_en.htm). A good example is that users have now started to use search engines such as Ixquick, but even then it is questionable how many will go all the way to guard their privacy through such search engines. Perhaps Regan's view that privacy is not an individualistic concept but a "common value"; "public value" and a "collective value" ought to be revisited again. RW

  2. I give google my search history so it can return more relevant results to me.

    An I give last.fm my playlists so it can suggest music that I might like.

    The problem comes when my data is used for things that I haven't agreed with. Or that I didn't notice I agreed with.

    Someday I will receive a call from a vendor and the background music is going to be a pearl jam song. I'll buy whatever he's selling. That sucks, and it is the least harmful scenario.

    Does the law enforce that they don't sell our data or use it for hidden purposes?

    • I completely agree. I don't think the problem is giving away our data. Is that's been used for something we haven't agree.

      Another problem is when all the tools that the men of the Iphone story used, come together to create 1 awful and very powerful app.

  3. Hm, hm, hm… not quite sure how to put this but … except for the MobileMe "Find My Iphone" application I don't find the whole story too thrilling. But maybe that's because I've already got used to the idea of using such services and I was heavily amused about the part of moral justification. Isn't it just that the speed of connecting information has increased while the transfer costs have sharply decreased. So, same old but much, much faster.

    … and if we don't want this tick the "don't show my number in phonebook" option the next time you get a mobile phone… ?

    Its not that the world is evil, its more that we are incredibly lazy protecting our privacy. So shouldn't we stop blaming our "Big Brother" and our "Little Sister", but to look into the mirror to see that we are responsible for that ourselves? (they call that idea of "empowerment", as opposed to the general principle of "overwhelming self-pity")

    PS: I miss you on Facebook :(

    PPS: Having an iPhone and complaining about privacy issues somehow doesn't go together anyway, right?

    • Thankfully, I don't own an iPhone :)

      As for Facebook, I've been thinking of going back, but if I do I will probably only use it to stay in touch with my family.

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