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Internet Privacy Hype: Fun for Web Analysts!!!

Stop! If you plan to read this post, I will need your detailed itinerary for the day, your most recent ingestion, and your most secret hopes and dreams, all of which I will oneday use against you.

Or this appears to be the fear of many people responding to the discussion of privacy from the New York Times this week. It is no new concern that the digital pervasion of our world has led to more comprehensive data on what people do, and that there are many companies eager to profit from the collective intelligence movement.

As a person who is thrilled by the idea of “reality-mining” (term coined by prof. Alex Pentland at MIT Media Lab), I appear to be in the minority. I’ll get into the reasons for my excitement momentarily.

First though, for those of you with your head stuck in a hole, here is a quick summary of some of the more thought-provoking questions arising around our digital data trails (beware, a preponderance of words–”boundaries”, “trust”–remniscient of a trip to the psychologist follows):

  • Despite the focus on the individual privacy, the real issue may be group-level privacy, as the public view of groups of people is impacted by collective data.
  • Big names like Google, Twitter, Facebook think really hard about how they can establish public trust, so that people don’t abandon their tools out of fear of lost privacy
  • The collapse of public trust could be a dominos-effect (one tool takes others down), and the result could be a unprecedented cultural crisis
  • Our modern ideas of privacy are a fairly recent phenomena, and may be a blip in the cultural evolutionary long-run – “For most of human history, people have lived in small tribes where everything they did was known by everyone else in the tribe” (–Dr. Thomas Malone of MIT Center for Collective Intelligence)
  • The boundaries between the public versus private life are blurring, both voluntarily (public profiles on social networking sites) and involuntarily (your workplace may require that you upkeep a certain work-related public profile online)
  • A LLP (limited liability persona) functions like an LLC, segregating part of your identity so that data tracked by your LLP’s devices won’t affect any of your (many) other personas.

What I think is most interesting about this digital phenomena has less to do with philosophical dilemmas and instead concerns the possibilities for innovation in data-mining that arise as new forms of data are amassed. New metrics and patterns to be analyzed, increased focus on geographic data, perhaps, new ways to combine location data with demographic descriptors, and analysis of the possible error when making inferences about who someone is as a result of data like their location or choice of travel, etc.

Tied to the data analysis innovations are those involving the systems housing the data. “I can imagine a system where the data will disappear” says Dr. Deborah Estrin of the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing at UCLA. There is also discussion to be had of encryption methods, and whether any are foolproof enough to guarantee privacy.

If I had to nail down a reason why these things are more exciting than scary to me, it is probably because I have trouble imagining how any of my own obscure library borrowings, or boring grocery shopping habits, could every be that embarrassing, or detrimental to my well-being. What is really important to me, and which I might get protective of, is my freedom of creative thought and self-expression. Tracking what I eat, read, or buy is not (as far as I can see) taking that away.

Your thoughts?

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3 Responses to "Internet Privacy Hype: Fun for Web Analysts!!!"

  • Mike Beasley
    Mike Beasley
    December 3, 2008 - 3:29 pm Reply

    The big scary thing about the collection of incredible amounts of data isn’t that it may be used to do a better job of selling us stuff, but that it may be misused. While companies may respond to public opinion, that just means that they will do as much as they can get away with under the cover of secrecy. Unlike in a small tribe, the information is non-symmetrical – big companies and the government know a lot about us and we have no insight into their actions.

  • Jonathan Bentz
    December 3, 2008 - 3:47 pm Reply

    I have to agree with Mike about the non-symmetry between what big biz and gov know about us that we would then not know about them. That’s a little scary and the information can be misused (if movies are any indication).

    Another thing that really creeps people out about having all this data out there is that it makes everyone predictable. Everyone is unique. But with more data, marketers are able to accurately target customers based on their behavior. Most people (even marketers when they out of the office) probably get creeped out by being able to be targeted so personally.

  • jhullman
    December 4, 2008 - 9:52 am Reply

    perhaphs. i guess my feelings on this are partly the result of my most salient experience with that kind of personal targeting is probably Amazon’s book recommendations for me, some of which have been really useful! If a company one day moves from observing my behavior and hypothesizing to actually accurately predicting my actions, that would weird me out.

    Thanks for reading:)

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