Everywhere we turn, we encounter debates over the risks and legality of uses of “private” data by social media mega-businesses like Facebook and Twitter.
Google is the latest culprit to be caught in the spotlight.
The lead technology piece in Saturday’s New York Times zeroed in on Google’s violation of German privacy laws, in connection with the company’s admission that it had systematically harvested private data from households in Europe and the US since 2006 — including email content and websites visited — in the course of capturing drive-by images for Google’s Street View photo archive.
There are already books to teach Internet privacy “survival skills” and software downloads to “erase” your data footprint. It won’t be surprising to find that some are willing to pay generously for services that sanitize their information shadows with virtual lye and steel wool. Privacy will be a scare commodity, and its market value will rise. When privacy becomes monetized, we may assign relative values to our own private information according to the type of information that is protected or made available.
While papers have touched on the potentially inverse relationship that exists between user privacy and the efficacy of Web 2.0 social ranking and recommendation engines, social media engines are only the beginning of what is to come.
For every product aimed at helping to protect information, there are exponentially more designed to extract and use your data. It’s hard to imagine that the pace and trajectory of these types of technologies will not surpass our ability to keep records and activities personal.
One of the great recent innovations in mobile technology — which will have a profound impact on the harnessing and re-use of personal data — is the use of sensors in handheld devices. In a section of their white paper, “Web Squared: Web 2.0 Five Years On,” Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle cover this in the section entitled, “Web Meets World: The ‘Information Shadow’ and the Internet of Things“:
Today’s smartphones contain microphones, cameras, motion sensors, proximity sensors, and location sensors (GPS, cell-tower triangulation, and even in some cases, a compass). These sensors have revolutionized the user interface of standalone applications. . . . But remember: mobile applications are connected applications. The fundamental lessons of Web 2.0 apply to any network application, whether web- or mobile phone-based (and the lines between the two are increasingly blurred). Sensor-based applications can be designed to get better the more people use them, collecting data that creates a virtuous feedback loop that creates more usage.
Beyond the information that is gathered, we must also consider where it resides and travels.
Cloud services for data storage and service provision, including content dissemination, are increasingly necessary for business. Individuals, using services for PC, iPhone, iPad, or other devices, are also turning more often to cloud services for storage, data back-up and retrieval, and information sharing. Examples of consumer cloud-based services are many — popular ones include Google Docs, Mozy, SharePoint, Rackspace, GoodReader, and Slideshare.
A quirky collective of entrepreneurs, business people, and digital thinkers have posted their kaleidoscopic look into the next 10 years of the Web on Slideshare.
Examples of the visions for the next decade:
- “Businesses will redefine virtually every internal process and . . . service they offer customers to leverage wireless access to information and contextual data to create new value for customers.” – Russ McGuire, VP Strategy, Sprint Nextel
- “People in developing nations will get online on mobiles before they do on PCs. . . . The mobile phone will become an enabler device, carrying users’ digital identities, preferences, and possessions around with them.” – Carlo Longino, Blogger, Mobhappy
- “Location will become THE core technology. . . . Nearly every user interaction with mobile devices will become location aware.” – Ted Morgan, CEO, Skyhook Wireless
- “Mobile payments will significantly replace currency [with cloud-based financial services managed by mobile device].” – Jonathan MacDonald, Founder, JME
- “The phone will become your doctor [using sensors to collect, transmit, and evaluate your health data].” – Steve O’Hear, Editor, last100
Regardless of whether one subscribes to these particular visions, two common themes are:
- Personal data, gathered via device, will be the coin of the realm
- Information will reside in and travel through remote hosting and service layers
In addition to what we put out there, businesses — including hospitals, financial centers, employers, airports, agencies, and the media — already gather our information, access it dynamically, and store it outside the confines of their own facilities. The data that we “control” through our own decision-making is only part of the story.
In 2008, IDC partnered with EMC to create the presentation, “The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe: An Updated Forecast of Worldwide Information Growth Through 2011“:
We discovered that only about half of your digital footprint is related to your individual actions—taking pictures, sending e-mails, or making digital voice calls. The other half is what we call the ‘digital shadow’—information about you—names in financial records, names on mailing lists, web surfing histories or images taken of you by security cameras in airports or urban centers. For the first time your digital shadow is larger than the digital information you actively create about yourself.
By 2020, a significant portion of the Digital Universe will be centrally hosted, managed, or stored in public or private repositories we call “cloud services”. And even if a byte in the Digital Universe does not “live in the cloud” permanently it will, in all likelihood, pass through the cloud at some point in its life.
Anyone for an e-commerce start-up offering a PDF report on “your personalized digital shadow” for $39.95, or $59.95 with a mood ring app thrown in?
A comment from Tim O’Reilly posted on Web2forDev reflects on the changed state of the Web:
The Web is no longer a collection of static pages of HTML that describes something in the world. Increasingly, the Web is the world: everything and everyone in the digital world casts an “information shadow,” an aura of data which, when captured and processed intelligently, offers extraordinary opportunities and mind-bending implications.
We are just beginning to stretch the parameters of our experience, in which technology plays an increasingly integrated and experiential role. We should seek to re-examine the construct of privacy in light of the disruptive impact of technological change and adapt our expectations and management strategies to emerging paradigms.
Akin to Stephen Hawking’s recommended strategy for not confronting the extraterrestrial, our most prudent tactic may be to reduce our visibility versus seeking engagement.
For good measure, let’s start by assuming that they already know where we live.