Pete Davison: Private Hysteria

Posted on April 20, 2011 by

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Earlier today, a story broke which caused a fresh round of privacy concerns, as it was revealed that the iPhone is, in fact, recording where you’ve been and storing that information in its backup file that it transfers to your computer every time you sync it.Here’s the story from the Telegraph’s “Technolgoy Consultant” (a typo which doesn’t immediately inspire me with confidence) — judge for yourself.

Here’s my take, and I understand completely you may not feel the same way: I don’t give a damn. Why should I? What possible use could that information serve? What could people find out that I haven’t already made abundantly clear via other means of social media? That I like to drive to Southampton a lot? That I tend to prefer Costa Coffee as my coffee outlet of choice? That I have been known to drive to Tesco in the dead of night for groceries and snacks?

“But, privacy,” people bleat, without really explaining what they mean. Well, what about privacy? The minute you connect a device to the Internet, you’re putting yourself on display. The minute you use your GPS-enabled phone to find out where the hell you are and where you should be going, someone knows where you are. The minute you search “oily lesbian midgets” on Google, someone knows what a complete pervert you are. If you’re that concerned about privacy, you should reconsider your decision to carry around a constantly Internet-connected device with satellite tracking in your pocket. Or at least turn the fucking thing off.

Most of the time, though, the hysteria over privacy seems to be worry for the sake of worry. Take the app Color which came out a while back, for example. Color is, in theory, a clever way for people in the same place to collect the candid mobile photos they snap of an event — and possibly meet new people. It does this through a variety of means — GPS tracking if possible, then Wi-Fi identifications, mobile phone base stations and even recording the background noise when you take the photo and comparing it to the noise print taken when other people take photos. My first reaction on hearing how it worked was “Jesus Christ, that’s clever,” followed by “but ultimately unnecessary as most people I know with iPhones will just immediately upload their photos to Facebook anyway.” My immediate reaction was not “Shit! My iPhone is recording me without telling me! Bastards!” — which was the reaction of a few people I spoke to about it.

Why, though? Why the panic? It’s just sound. Are you a secret agent? Probably not. And if you were, it’s unlikely you’d be using social media to share photos on your iPhone. Again, what possible sinister use could the recording of background noise have? Could advertisers figure out that you like hanging out in noisy places and start providing you with targeted AdSense ads for earplugs and ear drops? Perhaps. But again: so what?

The main objection seems to be that the device is doing this without the user’s knowledge. But I even can’t see the problem with this, really. If you’re going somewhere you shouldn’t be or doing something/one you shouldn’t be, then don’t take an Internet-connected GPS-enabled device with you that — shock horror — might know where you are. And for fuck’s sake, don’t check in on Foursquare while you’re at your bit on the side’s house. It’s always your choice. If you want to be part of the digital revolution, then you have to get used to the fact that your information is out there for as long as you’re connected to the Internet.

Potential spoilarz for Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story ahead.

If you’ve played Christine Love’s Don’t Take It Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story, you’ll know that the culmination of the plot deals with this very issue — the supposed “erosion of privacy”. The young characters in the game have grown up with this attitude to data, and as such are not surprised to know that other people are looking at their theoretically “private” information — and indeed take full advantage of this fact. I’m starting to feel like I can understand their attitude somewhat. I’m not sure if I should be pleased about that, or if I should be more worried than I am that my iPhone knows how many times I’ve been to public toilets in the last year.

Ah well. Can always turn it off. At least until The Machines take over.

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Posted in: Pete Davison