August 24, 2011

Stressed by going to see the Rise of the Planet of the Apes last night (a stark account of science that goes wrong – practically a documentary), I was getting ready to guard myself against the apocalyptic effect of misguided technology. It was timely because the daughter’s visit is impending and, since she is much involved in proper white-coated lab research (you know, endocytic pathways and caveolin coat dynamics etc), there must be an immiment danger of intelligent white mice beating up the cats and taking over the entire house. But I was not prepared for a fly to begin operating my computer via the touchscreen as it has been periodically all day – surely that is a good few stages beyond the Apes scenario and much worse than anything I envisaged. It may, for all I know, have embodied the spirit of Jeff Goldblum (or David Hedison if you are really old), in which case: ‘Sorry Jeff/David, I eventually lost patience and you had to go’. The late fly seemed to have a strange desire to run Adobe Acrobat programs.
The fact that technology can be mucked about with by animals in ways that were never envisaged is hardly a revelation. But there is no doubt that the animal that is likely to muck it up most royally is man (but don’t leave your iPad in the care of hippos), and usually on purpose.
One perversion of technology is www.tubecrush.net, the web site that invites commuters to send in pictures of men seen on the London Underground whom they find attractive. Being a provincial, I lived in ignorance of this phenomenon until yesterday and am now seriously concerned about the threat that it poses to my privacy. I have travelled on the Tube on a number of occasions since the site was started in February, how can I possibly find time to monitor the pictures of me that must surely reside there and object to their association with dubious sexist comments from so-called admirers? I have been looking for hours and haven’t found any of them yet; finding them all could eat up days of valuable working time.
Apparently tubecrush is OK because the pics are taken in a public place and are of men. I am not sure that either point is impressive, but I do know that its spirit seems out of step with a surprising change this week: Facebook {has changed its privacy settings: https://blog.facebook.com/blog.php?post=10150251867797131}. Every piece of content on a user’s profile will have a drop-down menu that lists its current access level, and other available options for changing it. These include sharing something only with people on one’s friends list, with ‘friends of friends’, with the ‘public’ or with a ‘custom’ list of people. The old ‘everyone” option has changed its name to ‘public’ because Facebook thinks ‘public’ is a better description of that broad level of access. These access options will also be added to the content-posting box so that they are more easily accessible to people when they are posting new photos, videos or written messages.
Now, we all know that Facebook has twiddled with privacy settings on any number of occasions. Sometimes without telling anyone while, quite coincidentally, increasing its appeal to advertisers. Sometimes (immediately after a change of the first kind) in quite the opposite direction in light of its consideration of valued feedback on the change – what troublemakers like to call being caught out. This change is different. It may, just possibly, be a pre-emptive strike with some privacy regulator hovering but it is news to me if it is. It may even be that Facebook is concerned about its users and wants to do the right thing. But the overwhelming body of opinion is that it is a response to the greater privacy control in Google+ – the first real rival to emerge in a long time. That matters because what we are seeing here is a recognition that respecting privacy has a commercial appeal. Facebook thinks people want privacy and may go elsewhere if they do not get it. Anybody would think it was, like, useful.
It may come as no shock to you that privacy matters to people, but it quite shocked me. One of the strong messages that I have received over the last few years has been that, notwithstanding the pious warnings, a very significant number of people, and most young people, really don’t care about privacy. Posting semi-naked pictures of themselves on their FB wall, tweeting outrageous thoughts or forwarding intimate e-mails – and that’s just people I know – there is not much behaviour that supports the idea that the warnings have been taken to heart. The papers have been full of open online indiscretions (who needs to hack anymore?). It is scarcely the main message to take away from the riots but the idea that someone would incite a riot on FB or Twitter is a pretty damning indictment of the failure of the messages about privacy to penetrate thoroughly. And it is not just online: some of the hoodies on camera had not even bothered to put their hoods up.
But while I trust Facebook only a little, I do trust them to have a pretty good idea of what their users are caring about. And the picture was supported by another highly commercial analysis, in {a summary of an e-commerce roundtable discussion on geolocation: http://www.ukfast.co.uk/press-releases/geolocation-last-high-street-lifeline.html} I was sent today. I recommend the discussion summary for some interesting analysis but note that Robert Walters, head of e-commerce and web development at TheFurnitureMarket.co.uk, highlighted the privacy issues associated with location and tracking technology and Neil Lathwood of UKFast emphasised that ‘smaller, little-known online retailers have to work hard before customers will hand over their details’. Well, thank goodness for that – it is about time that we thought thrice about the call for mobile numbers and e-mail addresses let alone the much more personal details often sought.
If there really is a change in attitude, even if it is just a shift towards a critical mass who really care, then the implementation of the ‘cookie legislation’ will be the last of the worries of those operating in e-commerce. They’ll need privacy by design and the ICO’s cup will runneth over.