Cloud Society: how private do we want to be?

Opinion Jon Collins Apr 10, 2012

The concept of privacy is becoming more elusive - how much do we want other people to know about us?

British hackles have been raised by a couple of news items this week, coming from very different directions. First, that the UK government wants to increase its internet and phone monitoring powers - not for content but to determine the sources and recipients of information. 

The second, as reported here and covered in more detail here, apps such as 'Girls Around Me' are providing even the least net-savvy with a stream of publicly available, yet ostensibly private information. 

In both cases (and "Finally!" some might say) we have seen a reaction from many of those who have, until now, been quite free and easy with their privacy. "I'm not sure I want the government reading my texts," said one person to me. Not that UK.gov says it can - though quite how it knows which correspondence is the more interesting to track, without digging into the detail of the content, is anyone's guess.

The danger, it would appear, is not so much about individual data points - that email, that check-in, that photo. Rather, it concerns what can be done when all the data points are taken and processed together, 'thanks' to cloud processing - you were there, you were in that photo, at that place. And therefore implicated in a situation, or open to being stalked. 

Should anything be done? Until now, apart from a certain unease from parents watching their offspring sharing, well, everything with their mates, the situation has mostly been allowed to run. Most likely we shall see a level of drum-banging over the next few weeks before attention turns to newer news.

In the meantime, to help navigate a route through this genuine fog, we have two courses of action which mirror the fact that the situation is at the same time very personal and affecting the nation as a whole.

From a personal perspective, we all have the ability to test out such tools for ourselves. Why not a bit of self-stalking using tools such as Creepy or Nearby Friends and find out for yourself whether you are comfortable with your own public trail. 

And more broadly, join the debate. Sites such as 38 Degrees are actively opposed to increased government "snooping"; meanwhile there's plenty of information available about the issues so read, learn, decide and if you don't like what you see, speak to your MP. 

Equally, you may think that broadcasting your location to your friends is useful, or that the occasional tracking of a text or two is a small price to pay for keeping all those pesky criminals at bay. 

One thing's for sure however - that given the increasing capabilities of mobile devices (which are, in effect, personal tele-monitoring stations), in parallel with an ever-growing amount of processing power and increasingly clever algorithms that can make sense of seemingly quite disparate pools of information, we're not yet even scratching the surface of what we, or our governments, are going to be able to sift through. 

Whatever comes in the future there is a debate to be had now, so that both privacy legislation and generally accepted norms can keep up. Or you can lie back and think of whichever nation-state you like, but don't be surprised about the result.

 

Jon Collins

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Jon is an author, technology commentator and director at Inter Orbis, which researches the impact of technology on business and society. With over 20 years’ in the technology industry, Jon has a deep understanding of the global infrastructures, software architectures, and governance models required to make communities work..

In Jon’s varied career he has been IT manager, software consultant, training manager, IT security expert and industry analyst. He was named European analyst of the year by the Institute of Industry Analyst Relations in 2009..

Outside of technology, Jon has authored several books about music including bands such as Marillion and Rush, Jon is currently writing two books about the impact of the Internet on business and society, and is researching a novel about the violinist, Paganini.