17 November, 2006

They're watching what?

One of the most sensible perspectives I've yet read on the matter of privacy, although written specifically in the context of harvesting data by offering a free service, makes sense across the board.

See "Some perspective on privacy" written by David Pogue. After reviewing a service that offers free international phone calls, David commented on the level of suspicion among some that this could be a ruse to harvest telephone numbers. "I’m as interested in privacy as the next person. But if someone were interested in harvesting phone numbers, why would he go to the trouble of launching this elaborate phone-services company? Wouldn’t it be infinitely more efficient just to pick up a tidy, complete, ready-to-harvest, pre-compiled list of phone numbers – a little thing called the *phone book*?". As David points out, who would care enough to pursue our "mundane daily communications"?

Our details are recorded in plenty of places as it is without looking for perceived faces behind rocks at every move.

I've been surprised by the number of friends and colleagues in the information and technological fields who are seriously suspicious of the motives of some (well, it's mainly one name that crops up regularly) of the most popular search engines. The nature of my job means that most of my day is spent on the Internet, pursuing links and searching for specific resources. That same search engine is my default choice, unless a particular search indicates a different approach. The reason for my choice is that it has the largest electronic footprint around, leaving me free to apply discernment in my choice of parameters and, hey presto, I'm not often disappointed in the results.

Considering what I am gaining from the service, if the company really does have the resources to trail me endlessly around my ever-changing electronic maze, why should I be concerned? In the work context, my employer could insist on standing behind me watching exactly the same processes and I would have no grounds to refuse. I feel strongly about my right to privacy but is what I do in a public domain really 'private' anyway?

Having said this, I am by no means advocating a careless approach to the way one dispenses personal information. The escalating number of cases of identity theft, at best the consequent inconvenience, reminds one constantly of the need to be reasonably cautious.

An example I've used more than once when addressing various audiences is that one wouldn't write one's personal information on a slip of paper and hand it to strangers at a mall. Why would one carelessly make the same information available in an electronic forum from which it cannot be redeemed?

As with most of life, it's finding the balance that counts.

PS I do kill cookies ruthlessly and frequently