Saturday, December 15, 2007

And This Is Supposed to Be a GOOD Thing?

Tim O'Reilly has an interesting editorial in the New York Times today about the benefits to both users and corporations of opening up cellphone networks. For 75% of the editorial I was completely with him . . . and then I got to the last few paragraphs:

Imagine, for a moment, that Verizon were to think like Google or Amazon. It could give you access to your entire call history, every phone call you have sent or received, not just your last 10 phone calls. It might build an address book for you based on everyone you had ever talked to, with top results for the numbers you call most often.

And what if this phone company opened up its databases to developers of software applications? We could soon see mash-ups of your call history with the address books from your personal computer, your telephone and your social network. Now imagine a user community turned loose to annotate that data.

...Who would switch carriers when so much knowledge about your social network resided on your phone company’s servers? [emphasis mine]

Now, I am less fanatical about privacy than many librarians are. I think that people are perfectly capable of making rational decisions to give up some of their privacy to get certain benefits. I have a listed number in the phone book, profiles on LinkedIn and Facebook, and I blog under my real name because I think that the personal and professional benefits of people knowing who I am and how to find me outweigh the risks. I am not overwhelmingly concerned about Amazon tracking my information there and using it to recommend books to me (although the fact that I use Amazon to research books that I'm interested in only because some editor is currently paying me to care about the subject tends to make a hash out of its recommendations for me, but that's another story). But something about this proposal creeps me out for reasons that I can't entirely pin down.

I think that my biggest problem with this vision is that it would be unavoidable. When people put personal information about themselves online in places like Facebook, they are in control of what they're revealing. Even with Amazon and other online tracking and information-gathering, you are still in control—if you really don't want there to be a record of you having purchased a particular book, you're still free to go to a bookstore in person and pay for it in cash (or get it at the library!), and there are ways to anonymize or at least mask your Web searches if you really want to. But I don't see a realistic way to opt out of O'Reilly's vision—even if you decided not to participate yourself, if your friends and colleagues call you, keep you in their address books, and annotate their address book listings for you, there will still be a whole lot of information about you and your place in the social network out there.

1 comment:

alanajoli said...

Considering that gmail recently changed its contacts structure because people didn't *like* the "everyone I've ever e-mailed is taking up space in my contacts" structure, I wonder where he's coming from. (Even with gmail, you opt in to having it remember your e-mail address.)

And there is something less personal about your e-mail than your phone, for many of us, at least. It's one step removed from the physical--whether that's your voice or a piece of paper in the mail.

So you're right. Creepy.