The (former) marketing director at Facebook - Randi Zuckerberg - caused intense discussion online when she claimed that anonymity on the web had to go. The points made were well backed up, with the assertion that people tend to behave themselves more online when they have to disclose who they really are. This ties in with the concept of privacy, and whether we can really hope to achieve or do anything online (or offline) that can be considered private anymore. The idea of privacy, I believe, will be a completely outdated notion in just a few years time as the days of being able to hide behind a pseudonym or do anything in our day to day lives without it all being trackable, archived and searchable.
A privilege or a right?
A few weeks ago, someone I follow on Twitter asked the question of whether in the future, privacy will be a right or a privilege. I replied that I didn't think it was either, but rather that it wouldn't even be a concept we would understand. This might sound a little extreme and a bit too '1984' but with the developments in social technology and search, this is the way that we are heading. Except that in contrast to 1984, where a privileged few were able to watch and control the actions of the masses, we are all now equipped with the tools to 'track' people and their activities. From just hearing someone's name in a bar along with one small fact about them - such as where they're from or where they went to school, you already have access to a wealth of information at your fingertips through smart searching and use of social technologies.
While many are able to control the access to information about them by altering privacy settings on Facebook or avoiding social networks altogether, in the age of content production we're in now, this sometimes isn't enough. While you may choose not to share information through social platforms, this information can still find itself online, such as the 'about' page of the company you work for, friend's updates, college websites, local news coverage, tagged photos etc.. Whether we like it or not, information about us can and will find itself online and rather than society looking at ways to control this, such as Schmidt's ascertion that one day we will all need to change our names, I think that society will find a way to adapt to this loss of privacy, when it becomes an insignificance that someone can find out pretty much anything about you they want.
The reality of this is being proven by concepts such as facial recognition, which has caused controversy for Facebook as users see this a step too far in the site's role in human connection and ownership of information. This extends even further with the idea of facial recognition search, where you could simply hold your phone up to someone in a bar to get instant access to everything about them online and a full social profile. It's the stuff of the future and, for many, the stuff of nightmares but it's not too hard to see how close we are to this making its way into our day to day lives. While there is a considerable amount of backlash against technology like this, the uses of it will be hard to resist and it will likely find it's way into mainstream adoption.
For now, Google are staying clear of this. In a recent interview, Eric Schmidt stated that he was 'alarmed' by the sheer accuracy of facial recognition software, which he finds very concerning. He states that it is not something they will be experimenting with, though he expects another company will 'cross that line'. And herein lies the problem that exists. The technology is out there to use pretty much straight away, that tears down any notions of privacy either offline or online. The question who, if anyone, will be controlling the usage of this? Right now it's down to the platforms themselves. Last year I was sat with Niall (Harbison) in a bar, watching him show friends the new iPhone app that allowed you to see where someone was by simply putting in their phone number.
The uses became clear pretty quickly. Someone who had recently been stood up on a date, put the person's number in to see what they were really up to. Needlesss to say, the app wasn't available for too long before Apple banned it. They made the right decision here, but the onus was on a single, private company - Apple - to make the call as to whether something like this was in user's best interest. The right decision won't necessarily always be made and it is the intermediarys - the Facebooks, Apples and Googles of this world, that get to decide whether the technology that exists, can make its way to the end user. And when you start to look at the commercial capabilities of new groundbreaking technology like this, the right decision won't always be made.
In action - job searching
Showing the reality of the loss of privacy in our day to day lives, this recently released infographic, based on a 2009 survey shows that over 45% of companies are 'screening' employees with a view to hiring or firing on social sites, with 35% of the information found to be negative. This shows the outcome of the loss/reduction of privacy and how it can impact people in a very real way. It may not be a good thing, but the total loss of privacy is coming nonetheless.
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