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Saturday, 18 September 2010

No more place for privacy?

With the launch of Facebook Places in the UK, 'location' services have really hit the mainstream. With Facebook Places, people can 'check in' to indicate exactly where they are to their 'friends' (and probably quite a lot of others too, unless they're very careful). It's another step - and perhaps a very big one - along a path that some might suggest has an inevitable outcome: the end of privacy, at least as we know it.

Scott McNealy, CEO of Sun Microsystems, told journalists, way back in 1998 that “You have zero privacy anyway, get over it.”  Others, most recently and persistently Mark Zuckerberg, co-founder and CEO of Facebook, have suggested that the whole idea of that is simply outdated and now irrelevant – people just don't care about it anymore.

Are they right? Is privacy dead - or at least dying? Should we just 'get over it', join all those many millions of happy Facebook customers who don't care about privacy, and start enjoying all the advantages of having a truly 'transparent' life? Embrace such wonders as Facebook Places, and enjoy the pleasures of meeting people for coffee in unexpected places just through the medium of our smartphones - after all, it's so much more convenient than having to call and arrange things. Of course there's an obvious possible downside - but burglary's not much of a danger as long as you have state of the art security systems, or a ravenous Rottweiler, or employ someone to housesit whenever you're out.

That, however, is just the simplest and most obvious problem. The other, less obvious, but ultimately more important issue is what happens to all the data about where you are, where you've been, and so forth. The possibilities of using this data for profiling - and eventually predictive profiling - are immense, which presumably is why Facebook and many others are introducing products like this. They'll be able to learn even more about you than they already can.

Do we care? Zuckerberg would suggest not, but there isn't much evidence to back up his claims. McNealy would say that it doesn't matter whether or not we care, there's nothing we can do about it. Personally I don't think either of them are right. Events like the fall of Phorm and Facebook's own forced abandonment of their Beacon system, and the 30,000+ Germans who put their names to a challenge to data retention legislation, all suggest that there is still an appetite for privacy - and for some more control over what's going on.

Will Facebook Places be a huge success? Will people just embrace it, without considering the downsides? It will be an interesting test....

2 comments:

  1. I remember reading similar concerns about Foursquare, which seemed to precede Facebook in becoming a popular location-based application. It will be very interesting to watch this new phenomenon expand -- and how the market and other modes will react to privacy concerns.

    Sun is now Oracle by the way! Not sure what McNealy is doing now...

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  2. There's much more that's likely to happen - a recent study of Android apps suggested that some of them collect location data from the people using their Android phones, and then release it to third parties or even sell it, along with phone numbers and other crucial personal data. Location, location, location........

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