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.