September 10th, 2005


The Future is Last Week

Many technologists are also privacy advocates, which is something that poses an interesting dichotomy. Especially when you look at something like this. A pair of activists are going to keep tabs on everyone who signs a petition to get a referrendum to ban Same Sex Marriage in Massachucetts. The names, address, phone numbers, etc. of these individuals, which the activists label homophobes, will be posted online for all the world to see.

A large part of what people think of when they think privacy isn't privacy at all- it's hampered communications. Having an unlisted phone number is not a tool to enhance privacy- your phone number is still a matter of public record. Your address, and most of your personal information is a matter of public record. We often think that, by controlling access to that information, we're taking some control over our privacy, but in reality, there are pathways to that information that we can never close.

Who you are, what you do, where you live- all of this is information that has suddenly become easy to access, as technology allows heterogeneous datasources containing that information to be easily cross referenced, in the form of sites like Zabasearch, and even Google.

Welcome to the age of sousveillance- observation from below. One of the side effects of this "Information Revolution" we've been hearing about. I can track most US citizens from my laptop. And it isn't all that hard. Some of us fall off the map; some of my information is outdated- I don't live in Troy anymore, and haven't for years now.

But let's go back to these petition signers. Our activists are going to compile a list of all of them, with personal information, so that people can track these "homophobes". Some people claim that this is intimidation- but I'd hardly agree with that. Your vote is a secret, but petitions, and pretty much any other political action you take, are not. What we're seeing here is a removal of anonymity- something that we're going to see more and more of.

Sure, the Internets let you invent an identity, have a veil of anonymity- but the sword cuts both ways. It makes information about you easier to access, cutting away that secure sense of privacy- which is a delusion to begin with.

These activists aren't using indimidation tactics- they're saying, "You think you feel this way- but do you feel strongly enough to have those feelings brought out into the light of day? Are you willing to put your face out there right next to your scrawled signature?" From that perspective, I can't do anything but applaud this action, and hope to see that this sort of data mining becomes standard practice- for citizens.

If there's one group that needs to have their access to information restricted- it's the government. They tend to do bad things when they know enough to be dangerous.