Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Angst of Privacy

My friend Jerry sent a terrific blog posting from Jeff Jonas, who writes about “information management and privacy in the information age.”

Talk about a topic full of angst.  We inhabit a world in which we despise the fact that Google peers inside our personal email to target click ads, or decides its alright to post pictures on the Web of our backyard.  We hate it when government puts cameras up at intersections to catch folks running red lights, or when we plow snow for the state and are required to carry a GPS so our employer knows our whereabouts.  And the thought of having an RFID tag on a jar of baby food, so a retailer knows to offer us a discount on diapers, just creeps us out. 

I was at a Marketing meeting the other day when one of the really smart marketeers I know said something like, “Here, here and here is where we can drop a bunch of cookies on the customer and follow them around the web.”

We hate being watched, right?  Don't we?

Until, of course, we steal a bus or get into a fight after school and post our escapade on YouTube for all the world (and the police) to see, or get into our underwear and post the picture to MySpace.  If we can stay dressed, maybe we let LinkedIn and Trip-It inform our competitors which city we’re visiting this week, and which potential customers we linked-to, or maybe we just articulate our company strategy and go-to-market on our website, or perhaps we Twitter about what we’re putting in our coffee at Starbucks this morning, or maybe we just Facebook the details of our colonoscopy.

The theme seems to be this:  We don’t mind being unsparingly intimate and stupid with the rest of the world, so long as we have full control over when and how we embarrass ourselves.

Now, Jeff Jonas gives us something new to think about:
Mobile devices in America are generating something like 600 billion geo-spatially tagged transactions per day.  Every call, text message, email and data transfer handled by your mobile device creates a transaction with your space-time coordinate (to roughly 60 meters accuracy if there are three cell towers in range), whether you have GPS or not.  Got a Blackberry?  Every few minutes, it sends a heartbeat, creating a transaction whether you are using the phone or not.  If the device is GPS-enabled and you’re using alocation-based service your location is accurate to somewhere between 10 and 30 meters.  Using Wi-Fi?  It is accurate below10 meters.
The implications of this—especially for those of us who are rarely more than a few meters from our cellphone—is that we can map the spatial coordinates of our lives.  And our friends’ lives.  Our families could, theoretically, post a spatial map on our gravestones so that our ancestors could see where we spent our time before shuffling off this mortal coil.

Jonas continues:
The data reveals the number of co-workers that join you Thursdays after work for a beer, and roughly where you all go. It knows where these same co-workers call home, and just exactly what kind of neighborhood they come from (e.g., average income, average home price) … information certainly useful to attentive direct marketing folks.
Large space-time data sets combined with advanced analytics enable a degree of understanding, discovery, and prediction that may be hard for many people to fully appreciate. Better prediction means a more efficient enterprise and nifty consumer services.
And more angst.  Lots more.  What you thought was a smartphone turns out to be a Trojan Horse.
We have all been warned.  It’s going to be an interesting century.