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On Data and Disclosure

December 15th, 2009
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I like to think about ways to customize my world, and the digital world writ large, in ways that support and help us explore our unique selves. It is in our very diversity that individual strengths can play out to become our personal best, to help each other grow, and create fertile new worlds.

However, under the guise of “increased security,” we are increasingly surrounded by tools and technologies that minimize and standardize us, including video surveillance and data storage and analysis. About that last link to Google, CEO Eric Schmidt recently said “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.

This indiscriminate personal data hoarding is both an individual and a societal problem. Schmidt’s argument that we shouldn’t have anything to hide is specious (not to mention a double standard: it doesn’t apply to Schmidt). In a 2007 paper called ‘I’ve Got Nothing to Hide’ and Other Misunderstandings of Privacy, George Washington University Law School’s Daniel J. Solove convincingly critiques that argument. Indeed we have many things to hide, like our passwords and credit card numbers, certain personal habits and preferences, things that contribute to human dignity and respect. As noted security expert Bruce Schneier writes in his essay The Eternal Value of Privacy, “Too many wrongly characterize the debate as “security versus privacy.” The real choice is liberty versus control.”

Ironically, Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly host a blog called The Quantified Self where they report about people exploring ways to keep track of themselves. It’s a significant difference between curiosity, personal need, and voluntary disclosure that’s driving data sets, and corporate ventures like Facebook (nod to jerking you around again with recent privacy policy changes), Google (Schneier’s response to Schmidt’s quote above), and damned near every corporate site you make an account with and that tracks your every move these days.

I’m looking for examples of sites that encourage liberty and demonstrate some respect for its users/clients. I will be reporting on what I find. If you have suggestions, I welcome them.

Coaching moment: Here’s a little thought exercise. Think about a typical day in your life.

What kind of things do you do in private? These might be taking a shower, brushing your teeth, thinking about the day. Some things might be really private as in just you by yourself, and other things may be private in some context, like thinking about your day out loud with your spouse or partner. Once you get a good list, which of those things would make you uncomfortable if they were made public in some way?

Now think of the kind of things you do in public, like driving to work or the store, walking around, having a conversation over lunch. Think about stories that might be told about you from the perspective of not knowing what you were really doing. You might take clues from signs that you walk by, or maybe other people (posture, groupings, facial expressions). Can you think of any stories that are not only wrong but might hurt you?

Finally, think about your online tools. Have you actually looked at the Terms of Service or Privacy Policies that you’re agreeing to? If you knew they were disrespectful to you or even abusive of your personal self and liberty, would you stop using them? Since the answer is “probably not,” what would you suggest these companies change?

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