Monday, August 14, 2006

Telling Shadows

This is the last time,
That I will say these words,
... Say these things.
They go away,
But they never do.”
(“This is the Last Time” – Keane ; Composed by Chaplin/Hughes/Rice-Oxley/Sanger) [Web site ; Myspace ; Wikipedia entry]

In his novel, 1984, George Orwell envisioned a world where government personnel – aided by the wide deployment of eavesdropping technology and a insidious, report-on-your-neighbor culture – could watch all citizens most of the time. Thankfully, Orwell’s fictional world of an all-seeing, totalitarian state has not materialized, but our electronic life is changing in ways that increasingly positions the commercial sector – and by extension, potentially the government sector – to have an extraordinary knowledge of the patterns of just about everyone’s daily life.

  • Query trails divulged: The inadvertent release by AOL of query trails has been big news [see TechCrunch item – 330+ comments and counting]. Called “undistinguished identities” (i.e. information about us that compiles our online behavior), our query histories – even unattributed – are a potential boon to many parties (e.g., marketers) and if attribution can be established, an extraordinary threat to personal privacy [see ZDNet item that references a piece by Scott C. Lemon who coined the phrase].

  • Text message forensics: There is work underway [see BBC item] to determine whether text messaging composition patterns are sufficiently distinctive to allow persons composing messages to be identified directly from their messages.

  • Who walks where: The National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Japan [Web site] has invented a floor covering which can determine the weight, age, and sex of the individuals strolling across it, apparently with a high degree of accuracy [see endgaget item]. This has obvious application for, say, tracking customer movement patterns in retail establishments.

  • Social visibility: In his post, “Social Networks and Information Retrieval,” my colleague Stu Weibel reports on the recent ACM SIGIR conference and notes that electronic social networks aren’t new (e.g., Usenet has been around many years), but that the second generation of social networks (Friendster / Myspace / Facebook) has engaged new users in new ways: Stu writes, “for the first time, one's place in a social network is visible to all, and subject to self-aware 'gaming' by the participants, as well as exploitation by information retrieval scientists, marketeers, predators, spooks, and even parents with the courage to delve.

As I commented in an earlier post on personomies, many good things can potentially flow from the selective gathering/sharing of personal information. And good things may also flow from exploiting the aggregation of anonymized, but demographic-specific information (e.g., if a floor covering technology installed at a library could reveal what sectors of a community use the library when, managers can optimize staffing levels and  programming). But intrusive and dangerous applications may arise from the same data just as readily. And that gives one great pause.

It’s tempting to suggest that technical advances which lessen privacy will be countered by those that help preserve it (e.g., PrefPass [see TechCrunch item]), but the pace of development and deployment seems to favor the privacy-threatening. And privacy-protecting policies, practices, and regulation – arguably not yet up to even governing yesterday’s technology – remain perpetually outpaced. There are also questions about the capacity of entities like AOL to keep the data safe even if their policies are acceptable.

So, as our electronic shadows grow ever longer and our past persists in the digital ether, gentle readers, what are our shadows telling to whom? And how do we individually and collectively navigate the promise and perils of exploiting personal data?

(Note, the image accompanying this posting is from Apple’s masterful 1984 Superbowl  advertisement [Wikipedia entry].)

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