Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What do you do when you catch someone staring at you?

What if they're taking pictures of you?

Suppose they're taking pictures of your car? Your home? Other family members?

Clearly each of us have different ideas of what kind of privacy or lack of privacy we're comfortable with. But unless we're hermits, or never leave our home unless we're wearing a chador, there are clearly some kinds of public appearance we're willing to accept, since most of us are listed in the phone book, use credit cards, go on walks, go to church, participate in community activities, etc.

But where do we draw the line? Especially, why is online information something so many of us are uncomfortable with?

The names of myself and my family members, our pictures, addresses, phone numbers, places of work, schools, and a host of other information are, strictly speaking, all publicly available with a modicum of effort. (A private detective could collect all of that information in the space of an afternoon. Someone without the resources and training of a detective might have to work a little harder, but it wouldn't be difficult.) Why is it not OK for this information to be exposed publicly on Google or Facebook or any of the other places online where "social networking" or whatever people are pleased to call it is going on?

I think part of the problem is the anonymity of the way in which that information may be obtained. My neighbors, for example, know a bunch of stuff about me that isn't even publicly available in any sense of the word. Yet it doesn't bother me. I think it doesn't bother me because there is a reciprocity: I know the same kind of things about them, and we both know that we know. It's part of living in a community, and people who are reasonably sane are OK with that. It's part of who human beings evolved to be.

Information that's available online may be accessed by anyone, in the same sense that anyone may walk down my street, stop in front of my house, make notes, take pictures, all perfectly legal (in the USA - other countries may have stronger restrictions on what is permitted) as long as they don't trespass. However, someone who stops in front of my house stands a good chance of being noticed by me or my neighbors.

Someone who accesses information online is not likely to be noticed by anyone.

And I believe that is where the difference lies.

David Brin in his book "The Transparent Society" suggests that hiding behind secrecy and encryption is pointless for us. Sure, it's a bit creepy to think that complete strangers access this information, but it's essentially impossible for us to prevent it. No matter what lies we tell, or what permissions we restrict on our online profiles, the details of our lives are always accessible to people with power or money.

No, the thing that will keep our future from turning into something like Orwell's 1984 isn't stronger privacy, but stronger transparency. Brin suggests that the reason why people don't stare at each other in public is because they'll get caught staring. We need to bring the same thing to the web.

Maybe we should be able to see a list of people who went by our house on Streetview. Maybe we should get a message from Facebook when someone checks out our profile. And not just these things, which are in my opinion small potatoes. We should be able to see who ran a credit check on us, who sold our address to a mailing list, who passed along our credit card usage habits to a marketing firm. It's not as if we can really prevent it from happening, so instead we should be able to see it when it does happen.

People don't stare when they might get caught. It's a lesson Facebook and Google should probably adopt. And I'd love it if this two-way transparency were to become the law for everyone who collects information about us.