Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Privacy vs Voyeurism

Much has been written about privacy online. When Pandora reveals our friend's music tastes it makes us slightly uncomfortable, even if we enjoy the new music suggestions which result. When our friends can unknowingly reveal information about us, we find it disturbing. Facebook privacy currently dominates the discussion, but the trend of all online activity has been more sharing and less privacy.

I use foursquare, which allows friends on that service to see your location when you checkin. Earlier this week a friend checked in to the Lucile Packard Children's Hospital.

Hospital Heart/Lung monitor screen

A checkin notification is devoid of context; there was no indication if it was routine or emergency. Certainly if one had just rushed a child to the hospital one wouldn't bother checking in... but what about hours later? What about an extended stay, after initial panic subsides? Where detail is lacking, the mind fills in possibilities. After thinking about it for a while, worry overcame reservation and I sent email asking if there was anything I could do to help.

As it happens, the visit was completely routine.

It felt weird, asking if everything was ok. I was acting on the basis of information which even just a couple years ago would not have been available to me. Back then I would only have known if he'd informed me directly, and in that context asking if I could help wouldn't have seemed even slightly awkward.

Even if it hadn't been a routine visit, even if there had been help I could provide, reaching out on the basis of a foursquare checkin would have still felt weird. Why is that? I think it is a form of guilt, as using social media in this way feels a bit like voyeurism. In this case it was information the person had chosen to share by explicitly checking in on foursquare, but down in the subconscious it is still equated to clandestine spying.

As online privacy recedes, I think we're all going to be experiencing this feeling more often.

Thoughts on Sharing

Society does not inherently guarantee our privacy. It never did. The privacy most of us enjoy is actually anonymity. Celebrities struggle greatly to keep any portion of their lives out of public view; when you discard anonymity, privacy tends to go with it. As communications technology improves, the bar to achieve a degree of celebrity is lowered. I suspect the further back in history you go the difference will be the geographical radius of ones renown, not its impact.

We're rushing into a world where a huge percentage of the population will experience the advantages and disadvantages of losing anonymity in their daily lives.

  • The eCommerce site will know your approximate net worth.
  • The customer service response will be finely tuned to the likelihood your displeasure could damage their business.
  • Product companies will assemble marketing lists of people who are statistically more likely to buy their product. Not by placing ads in venues they are likely to frequent, but by targeting them directly.
  • When I look for a dance class for my daughter, I'll know if her friends are already enrolled somewhere without having to ask them.
  • Insurance as we know it today will fade away, uncompetitive. It will not use actuary tables, it will be essentially an auction based on a tailored risk profile.

We might recoil from this, but I suspect it is not something which can be stopped. The technology has reached the point where these things are feasible, and there is a huge economic incentive to do so. A concerted effort to stop it results in the technology being less visible, not absent.

Update: Louis Gray, the friend whose hospital checkin triggered this musing, has posted some thoughts on location-based services and what information we make available to others.