Reflections on what might have been
In 2003 I was fortunate to partner with colleagues at Birmingham City to participate in the Digital Challenge. We made a bid to create a means of delivering public services in a personalized way to individuals through channels of choice; does that sound familiar? In 2003 there was no ubiquitous smart phone so we faced up to the challenge of creating our vision with the technology of the day. It was the journey not the outcome that mattered though at the time we were focused on winning the challenge. An important debate considered how much information we were prepared to forego in order to receive the services we wanted; we questioned how widely shared those values were and how much that value derived from the benefits we envisaged. We were ahead of our time in our thinking but the technological challenges were too great and our ability to sell the idea missed the mark.
The GigaOm podcast on Monday 22nd April on the importance of mobile to retail featured Dr Phil Hendrix and Doug Stephens. I will leave the podcast to speak (no pun intended) for itself; it’s well worth a listen but it was the quote “If data is currency then who is the bank?” that caught my attention. Our online identities reside in a number of places but will they ever be aggregated? Will one identity become more important than the others? We don’t hear as much about identity as we used to; at one time there was a lot of discussion about single, transferable identity hence we can now “log in” to different sites with our Facebook ID, or our Twitter ID or our Google ID.
But all is not well in data land because along with that shared login comes personal information and that personal information is being harvested.
I’ve read two different views of this recently: Tom Cochran writes in the All Things D blog Where he highlights the benefits in exchange for service argument. Nothing is free and if we want to enjoy personalized information, any time anywhere access to relevant information and the convenience of the cloud combined with shared access across different devices then there is a cost; that cost is the personal information that service providers harvest when we use those “free” services. Cochran’s view is that it’s worth it, he writes:
“There is a zero-sum relationship between personalization and privacy”
“There’s no question the kind of data collection Google has to do in the background to power its Google Now service can be a little intrusive — perhaps too intrusive for some. But it also makes the results extremely useful.”
Om Malik takes up the contrary argument in his piece on the recently announced Facebook Home in which he argues that it “…destroys any notion of privacy”. In his piece “Why Facebook Home Bothers Me” Malik argues that the genie is out of the bottle and that “it’s too late to debate” but his concern is that:
“…. Facebook is going to use all this data — not to improve our lives — but to target better marketing and advertising messages at us”.
When we sat and debated the use of personal data back in 2003 we did so with the mindset of a benign dictator giving to those who we deemed ready to receive; in our defense our motives were of the best kind. Ten years on we have moved on from our pioneering spirit and we have learned, just as the technology has moved on and changed in ways we couldn’t even imagine then enabling our vision. People have the right to empowerment through digital inclusion it is not the place of a minority to decide nor is it their place to take that data and use it to profit themselves without due consideration of the rights of the majority.
In “Who Owns The Future” Jarond Lanier argues that the disparity between those who harvest data and those who give it for free contributes to inequality in society. We should listen to him and when we give our data in return for a “free service” we should consider the cost.