Where to Draw the Privacy Line

by Alex Nakahara

Technology makes our lives easier and more productive. That is the rationale for research and development. This improvement in convenience, however, is tied to a corresponding decrease in privacy and increase in trust.  The growing question with technology is how to find new ways to improve productivity while trying to moderate the invasion of privacy that our increasing symbiosis with our devices and software requires while determining who is worthy of our trust.

When I referred to an “invasion of privacy” along with “technology”, the first example to pop into your head was probably social networking, or, more simply, Facebook. There are countless examples of job searches poisoned by inopportune pictures and posts and discoveries by principals and parents of misdeeds by students. Almost everyone has de-tagged a picture of themselves that was unflattering, at best.

This is not what I am referring to when I speak of privacy.

While it certainly is one facet of privacy, an embarrassing Facebook album, celebrity photo scandal or insensitive Twitter post by an athlete is by and large a personal choice. The material usually originates with you, so don’t be surprised if it pops up later, either because of a hacker, carelessness, or your own efforts. To examine the aspect of privacy I want to talk about, let’s look at another indispensable modern gadget: the cell phone.

To call today’s smartphone a telephone is misleading. The iPhone, Blackberry and Android phones all have more power and capability than desktop computers did not that long ago. It often seems like their functionality is exponentially increasing. But as their usefulness increases, so does their invasion of our privacy. We accept this because we can seemingly no longer live without our email and e-reader and e-everything. But I think that few of us consider what is truly going on under the hood, and, more importantly, where it is headed.

GPS: a life-saver, for many people. No longer will you wander around a city, forlornly asking for directions at every corner grocery and gas station. You are in control of your own destiny!

And look! You can show off how intrepid you are to your friends by using apps like Foursquare and become the mayor of exotic places like Harvard Yard, having “checked in” 13 times in the last 2 weeks.  But on the flip side of the coin, you have, given the way information can propagate, now broadcasted your location to anyone who cares.

Foursquare recently came up with a new innovation: Radar. This builds on Apple’s Find My Friends, and basically means that you can follow your friends’ movements live (they can, of course, disable it if they want to) and see who’s close to you and what they’re up to. You can even see when all your friends went to the movies… without you. Where 10 or 20 years ago, you might never have found out and gone on with your life happily without having seen Transformers 3, now you spend an evening trying to figure out why your friends ditched you. It must be because they all secretly hate you. It can’t be because you had loudly proclaimed you would never see any Transformers movie.

The obvious remedy for this is not to use the application or disable it, which is easy enough. However, given the popularity of Foursquare and the ever-increasing pace of adoption of new technologies, it will probably become commonplace. Even if this particular application fails, the movement to share more and more information will continue to move forward.

For me, the actual sharing isn’t really a big deal. What worries me is what happens after the act. Digital storage is dirt cheap, and it seems like almost everything is archived somewhere. How long will it be before you can go back and look at every step you took last year laid out on a map?

Examples like this already exist. Google Chat and AOL Instant Messenger have the option to archive all your conversations automatically.  It’s useful, and I do it, but it’s just one more addition to this ever-growing database about me that I have only tenuous (if any) control over.

This example demonstrates the other key idea behind new technologies: trust. As technology grows more complex, we have to entrust our privacy to more and more players because there’s not one giant database in the sky; Google has information about you, as does Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and many other companies, not to mention governments.

I recently watched the movie Horrible Bosses, and there is a scene where (mild spoiler) the navigation system in the protagonists’ car shuts down the engine because the operator had overheard the protagonists talking about a crime they supposedly committed. This technology already exists, and while services like OnStar are currently premium features, it’s not unforeseeable that every car could have such a system. Combined with advances in automation, instead of merely shutting down the engine a person could lock the windows and doors and send the car to the nearest police station. On the other side of a coin, such technology could mean a hacker could simply order cars to drive to his location, making it incredibly easy to steal a car.  Do we think of car companies as being particularly secure? It’s not the first attribute that comes to mind. Even technology companies like Sony can have enormous problems with security. Whom can we trust? Whom should we trust?

So what do we do about this competition between convenience, privacy and trust? The answer lies in what we want the role of technology to be in the future.

Do we want cars that drive us where we need to go? Do we want phones that tell us to go to a bar because our friends are there? What about a phone that tells us to go to a bar because it has determined that you would have a good time there? Do we want email that filters our spam? That categorizes our email by importance? That can learn your style and write responses for you? Some of these things exist already, and it’s not too much of a leap to imagine the other ones could exist soon. While I think that the fate of humans as shown in WALL-E is unlikely, it’s a possibility.

My personal view is that privacy, secrecy, and to some measure, inconvenience, are what makes us interesting to each other and that the existence of such technology should not demand its use.

To some degree, progress is unavoidable. Thanks to email and smartphones, responses are now measured in seconds and minutes, not hours and days. Vacations are seldom carefree any more.

But there is no reason why every thought should be tweeted and every landmark be checked in to and no reason why every movie we see be chosen by our phone.

We have reached a time where a certain lack of privacy is unavoidable, and we should choose where to place our trust wisely.

But we should not let trust in our technology supplant trust in ourselves. To do so removes us from reality.