☆ Beware The “Super-Public”

As wave after wave of privacy news arrives, it’s easy to believe that public postings on social media sites are the problem. But I believe we are facing an issue caused not by public sharing but by an encounter with a new kind of “public”. First, a short story.

Alice, Bob and Evan

Close Scrutiny

Alice doesn’t mind her photo being visible to everyone on Facebook. She put it there originally because she was flirting with Bob, and the fact everyone else could see it wasn’t an issue. She had spent a lot of time understanding Facebook’s privacy settings in all their labyrinthine splendour and she was pretty sure that the only people who could see personal details about her on Facebook were friends, and the only people who could see the stuff on her Wall were the girlfriends she goes out with when Bob isn’t free, plus Bob (well, for all but one or two things!).

Alice is also a keen Twitter user. She has a different picture there – a flower at the moment, it was a kitten last month – and she’s happy to have a public profile. Her tweets are rarely very personal – just comments on the news, LOLs with the girls, food favourites and a wink to the gallery each time she went out with Bob. She’s been getting into Foursquare lately, checking-in at cinemas, restaurants and bars in a casually competitive way with the girls and with Bob’s mates. She’s often quite high in the league tables and she’s the mayor of the cocktail bar round the corner from her flat.

When she split up with Bob, she actually used all of those social media services more than usual because she hoped the girls – and maybe one or two of Bob’s mates – would rally round to make it hurt a bit less. That was OK for the first week, and she was distracted by fighting for top place in the Foursquare league table with Lavinia. Then one evening she was sitting in the sparsely-populated cocktail bar on her own, feeling depressed and Bob-less. Nursing a glass of the amazing chocolate cocktail that’s not on the menu but which she’s fallen in love with, she’s lost in a miserable dream world when some guy she has never seen there before walks in and sit beside her.

Chocolate MartinisHe made a bee-line for her, as if she had a spotlight bean shining on her, asked if the stool next to her was taken and introduced himself as Evan. That wasn’t something that had ever happened to Alice before – the guys always hit on her friends, never on her. Evan isn’t really her type; he’s probably a few years younger than her and has the air of an extra from The Big Bang Theory. Alice is quite surprised when he asks the waiter for a glass of the same cocktail – by name. She’d assumed it was just the regulars who knew about it, and there was no way this Evan was a regular at the bar. She’s even more surprised when Evan strikes up a conversation with her.

As they start to exchange trivia, Alice discovers Evan has seen almost every movie she’s been to in the last two months. What’s more, he liked all the same ones as her and hated all the ones she hated. His taste in books is also excellent. She’s starting to wonder if she’s been missing out by her antipathy for geeks.  Finally the last olive is eaten and Evan suggests they go grab a meal, her guard is down. So when he proposes dinner at the Greek place Bob used to take her to, she had no defenses left.

Public and Super-Public

Spontaneous Gathering of MonarchsI’m no novelist (all those names are borrowed from security theory) and I don’t know how this story ends. But I do know Evan’s secret. He was exploiting a new kind of “public” using an iPhone app called “Girls Around Me”, which aggregated together information from all the social media tools Alice was using and gave him the ability to eavesdrop on her activities. Alice had a reasonable expectation that all her public activities would be seen by all her friends, and no particular concerns that any of them might be seen by strangers. She was engaging in what researcher Danica Radovanovic has called “phatic posts”, providing public context to her life with what seemed trivial information in the same way as a group of friends in the real world might do.

In the real world, “public” is accompanied by practical realities that introduce a little friction. To listen to Alice and Bob in the  bar, Evan would need to sit close enough to hear them, and they’d probably notice and change their discussion. To see all the places Alice went and the things she likes, he would need to take the time to follow her covertly. His actions would quickly be apparent as obsessive and problematic – Rick Falkvinge explains this more.

But in the new “super-public” of data-mined social media, the friction is gone, and the sort of information Evan used to find and meet Alice was simply the product of triangulation between her posts. The software he downloaded for his iPhone did it all for him, although he is probably enough of a geek to stitch together scripts that would harvest the JSON from dozens of REST interfaces and use open source business intelligence tools to mine the resulting data. It’s unlikely any privacy rules would even be implicated, let alone broken

That’s the issue here. Sharing information in phatic posts is normal and expected – it’s just the translation of life in atom-space into life in bit-space. What’s new is the super-public, the exposure of life to scrutiny by triangulation and data-mining. So far, no privacy legislation takes it into proper account. Companies, however are now actively mining the super-public.

Discussion of privacy treats it as a bilateral matter between the subject of the data and the application provider, focusing on “do not track” and application privacy settings. While this is important (as the scandal of Facebook’s Social Reader shows). we need to move to a place – as Helen Nissenbaum has explained – where we see privacy as a matter of control of the flow of information across contexts. We need to discuss and legislate for the super-public.

(First published in ComputerWorldUK on April 10, 2012)

☂ Global Mink

My new travel and photo journal, The Global Mink, is already getting plenty of traffic. One lesson I learned long ago is to always publish anything you care about on your own domain, as you can never be sure what will happen otherwise. So I decided to move it to its own address, at global.webmink.com, where you’ll now find it. All the old links should redirect – let me know if they don’t.

✈ I Always Wanted A Portico

I Always Wanted A Portico, originally uploaded by webmink.

This house in Edinburgh has a grand classical portico – on the roof of the house next door! Never let practicality get in the way of your dreams!

(sample of the daily posts from The Global Mink)

☝ Open Source And Cut-Throat Competition

If your perception of open source is that it’s all about volunteers and hobbyists working selflessly for the betterment of humanity, the cloud computing market today will be shattering your illusions. I explain more in my article today on InfoWorld.

☝ Speculating About Microsoft’s New Subsidiary

Microsoft just launched a new subsidiary to interact with open source communities. I’ve seen plenty of “what they did” reporting but so far no “why”. My (highly speculative) offering is intended to catalyse some real answers. You’ll find it at ComputerWorldUK today.

✈ New Travel Blog

If you aren’t following my new travel blog, do give it a try!

The Global Mink

Napoleon's Tomb
Spending as much time travelling as I do, one of the things that strikes me is how differently we all view history. For example, a favourite perspective vortex is to visit the tomb of Napoleon I in the crypt of Les Invalides in Paris and realise that all the terrible stuff I learned in school about “old Boney” was at best only half the story.

As well as the stuff about ruthlessly dominating Europe by armed force (which, of course, is spun differently in Paris!), the walls of his magnificent tomb at the Les Invalides recount how he created a fair system of law, established education for all, created a national network of roads and so much more. I’m sure French children learn all about this but all English children learn is about wars and how we eventually put Bonaparte in his place (a small, remote island).

Re-Discovering American History

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✈ Eco Mower

Sacred cows are not necessarily a problem. Just because something is sacred, that doesn’t mean it can’t also be useful. Make the most of them.

The Global Mink

Eco Mower by webmink
Eco Mower, a photo by webmink on Flickr.

Cows are respected as a symbolic spiritual presence in India. They roam the streets freely and are described as “sacred”.

I took this photograph on the Raj Path in Delhi. One of the gardeners there was using the cow to pull the lawn mower, and rewarding the cow with luscious grass clippings. All very eco-friendly and practical!

Just because something is sacred, that doesn’t mean it can’t also be useful! Make the most of your sacred cows…

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☝ A New Kind Of “Public”

As wave after wave of privacy news arrives, it’s easy to believe that public postings on social media sites are the problem. But I believe we are facing an issue caused not by public sharing but by an encounter with a new kind of “public”. Read my article on ComputerWorldUK today to find out more.

☆ Easter Message

Old Vienna Reflected In New ViennaWho said this?

“The Church in its own bubble has become, at best the guardian of the value system of the nation’s grandparents, and at worst a den of religious anoraks defined by defensiveness, esoteric logic and discrimination.”

No, it wasn’t Richard Dawkins or indeed any other spokesman for atheism. It was the Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson, in a blog post this week entitled Time for a reboot, not a bailout. I’m hardly an insider to the topics he discusses, which are the manifestations of the deep politics of the Anglican Communion.

But for the first time in I-don’t-know-how-long, I’m reading words by a bishop who has at very least a glimmer of insight into the problems Christianity has in the 21st century. Those problems have been a frustration to me for more than a decade now.

There’s a core to Christianity that’s impervious to change – the Heart of Christianity, as Marcus Borg put it. But that heart is not to be found in the traditions received from the society that embraced the industrial revolution. Throughout its history, Christianity has embraced society and found the essence of the Jesus Way in it awaiting redemption. “Tradition” changes.

By assuming the prudery of the 18th and 19th centuries defines “tradition”, the church has failed to understand or adapt to modern sexuality, globalist capitalism, the meshed society and more. Instead, it worships an idol. In each case “tradition” means intolerance of change and a failure to see where Jesus would have been found in each change. The result is the disconnect Bishop Alan describes:

” The C of E used to be the guardian of the nation’s morals, but is increasingly perceived as irrelevant, or even a threat to them.”

As well as all the things Bishop Alan pinpoints I keep hearing those “anoraks” voices calling for internet censorship – most recently the “snooper’s charter”, CCDP. I long to hear their voices speaking into the emerging meshed society instead of against it.

“The real fault line now in the Church is between those of all stripes who are at home with social change, and whose Jesus inspires them to find ways of living authentic lives in this culture, and those who fear it, and whose religion is a way to prevent it, or even reverse it.”

Yes, yes. Let’s hope the new Archbishop of Canterbury, whoever he is, understands these things and has the wisdom and courage to engage.

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