Evolution Shift
A Future Look at Today
July 13th, 2010

A Relevant Past Column – Privacy

As a futurist I often feel as though I live in a déjà- vu world. I write about something and then months or years later it occurs or becomes something that is on the minds of a lot of people.

This is the first of what may be occasional columns from years past written here that, for one reason or another, are relevant to what is currently going on in the world.  As a futurist I try to write “ahead of the curve” or to take a “future look at today”. Sometimes old columns resonate today.  This is one of them.

The recent – and ongoing – flap about privacy settings on Facebook is just the latest incident that makes us think about our privacy in this age of connectivity and social media.  When we are confronted with this issue, predictably we seem to recoil and speak about invasion of privacy.  We get upset that our personal data is or could be shared with people we don’t know.

Facebook, with  almost too numerous to count privacy settings, is clearly a conflicted company when it comes to privacy.  It has a culture, purpose and business model that is completely about sharing, or sharing completely.  A complete surrender of privacy is the ideal.

To focus on Facebook and other social media as a place of concern for privacy is myopic.  We all long ago gave up privacy for the sake of convenience.  In the larger scheme of things we have willingly, if not fully consciously, given up our privacy over the past few decades.

The recent privacy flap at Facebook has caused many people in audiences I address to ask about privacy as it relates to social media.  I end up referring to a column I wrote almost four years ago and simply say:  “As technology advances, privacy declines”

Below is that slightly tongue in cheek column, written in 2006.

Technology Advances, Privacy Declines

One of the trade offs we seem to have accepted during the past 20 years is a loss of privacy.  None of us say we approve of that, but we have embraced technology in such a way that a diminished sense of privacy has occurred.  The portability of storage and computing, as discussed on this blog in earlier posts, is a major reason.  The easier small storage devices and laptops are to carry, the higher probability of theft.

It was revealed the other day that a laptop, with personnel records for 382,000 Boeing employees was stolen.  This was the third time in 13 months that this has occurred with Boeing.  Of course Boeing is not the only company where this has happened.  Laptops are portable and easy to put into a briefcase or bag.  Someone goes up for another cup of coffee at Starbucks or leaves their desk to go to the bathroom and in a few seconds the laptop and all the data on it is stolen.  We all enjoy the fact that we can have a computer with us wherever we are.  The freedom to work wherever and whenever we want is a very empowering thing, something that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

In the 1960s and 1970s, computing equaled mainframe computing.  Companies and universities all had these large machines that were in air conditioned, controlled access environments.  Access was highly monitored, records were kept for all activities and people even dressed in white coats.  It looked and felt like the religion of the main frame.  Yes, you could probably steal a computer tape, but you would have to have another main frame computer to access the data.  This is so different than today when every desk has a PC and laptops are everywhere.

The other key development of course is the Internet and the fact that all these computers are connecting to it.  This connectivity allows remote access from practically anywhere.  Firewalls become challenges to hackers.  Identities stolen from computers via the Internet can be almost instantaneously monetized.  It seems like every day there is an article or story in the media about identity theft.  So our highly connected lives open us up to risk.  This also opens us up to tracking.  What web sites we visit on the Internet.  What we buy.  Who we communicate with and what we say.  Of course, now with massive use of wireless we have grown accustomed to using public wireless hot spots for our most personal communications and transactions.  We learned a decade ago that cell phones were less secure than land lines, yet that certainly didn’t compel us to stop using them.  In fact, cell phone usage has exploded.

Entire new security businesses such as consumer virus protection software, and security gurus have emerged to help companies protect their data and confidential information.  We all want to be connected and protected at the same time.  If you truly want to keep your communications private, think back on all the mafia movies you have seen.  To avoid being bugged at home or at the office, or being wiretapped via the phone, mafia dons would meet on a park bench or take a walk on a construction site to discuss ‘business’.  Once you move to most electronic communications you increase the risk of intrusion, observation or theft.  Hey, what’s so bad about sitting on a park bench on a sunny day?

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