The Spy in the Coffee Machine

Spy in the Coffee Machine
The Spy in the Coffee Machine

Slightly over a year ago, I had a conversation with Erik Duval about privacy in this digital world. He basically argued that losing privacy is not a problem as long as the transparency is symmetric. This is basically the point that David Brin writes about inĀ The Transparent Society. The conversation started my thinking on this topic. Was Bill Joy right when he allegedly said “Privacy is dead, get over it”?

I was hoping that O’hara and Shadbolt’s The Spy in the Coffee Machine would give me some new perspectives on this issue.

The book opens with a chapter on the “disappearing body”. We have less and less face-to-face contact and more and more phone, email and Internet (IM, (micro)blogs, social networks) communications. A physical presence leaves behind few signs, whereas information is persistent.

When the prophetic but currently unfashionable Marshall McLuhan predicted that we would soon be living in a global village thanks to new technologies and media, most people took that to mean that travel would be straightforward, intermingling of diverse cultures frequent and influences wide and strong. But one other property of a village is the absence of anonymity and secrecy. Privacy is at a premium, and that is another aspect of the global village with which we will have to come to terms.

In our society we have a very hybrid view on privacy. It isn’t a value neutral concept. Some cultures regard privacy with suspicion. In “the West” we have a positive opinion on privacy and see it as something to be protected by law:

But on the other hand, many use new technologies to expose themselves to view to a previously unimaginable degree. Webcams and Big Brother provide almost unlimited access to some exhibitionists, while very few people will pass up the opportunity to appear on television. […] Most academics would kill to be interviewed about their work, even as they cling to the copyrights of their unread articles.

The book then provides a comprehensive overview of current technologies and how these relate to privacy. They do this in a matter of fact, objective and entertaining way. A couple of examples:

Moore’s law makes it trivial to search extremely large datasets (the end of practical obscurity) and is especially interesting when it comes to personal memory:

The amount of information that an ordinary person can generate, and store, is now colossal. It is possible to store digital versions of life’s memories in increasing quantities. As human-computer interaction specialist Alan Dix one playfully noted, it takes 100 kilobits/second to get high quality audio and video. If we imagine someone with a camera strapped to his or her head for 70 years, that will generate video requiring something of the order of 27.5 terabytes of storage, or about 450 60gb iPods. And if Moore’s law continues to hold for the next 20 years or so [..] we could store a continuous record of a life on a device the size of a sugar cube.
The ability to record memories, and store them indefinitely in digital form in virtually unlimited quantities has been dubbed the phenomenon of memories for life. This is an important area of interdisciplinary research; we will need to understand how it will affect our social and political lives, and our psychological memories.

Web 2.0 mashups allow you to easily bring multiple public resources together. By combining different databases you can now easily see where in your area all the sex offenders live (see Megan’s law):

In a clever demonstration of the dangers of mashups, consultant Tom Owad mashed up book wishlists published on Amazon with Google Earth, but with a twist. The Amazon users leave a name and a home town, which was often enough to locate them via Yahoo! People Search, at an individual address, of which Google Earth would hold a detailed satellite image. He also filtered out most of the books, to leave only those who read subversive literature. The result was a map of the world with readers of subversive books located upon it; click on the location of such a reader, and get a high resolution satellite image of his or her house. Of course, Owad was merely demonstrating the principle, not building a usable system for genuine deployment by the Thought Police. But ….

There are also technologies that could help in keeping us empowered. The Platform for Privacy Preferences (P3P) Project for example “enables Websites to express their privacy practices in a standard format that can be retrieved automatically and interpreted easily by user agents”.

The Panopticon is here according to the authors. They use the final chapter of the book to finally give some of their own opinion about whether we have a worrying future ahead of us. They take a very balanced viewpoint: these new technologies also solve many problems and have big advantages. At the same time we should never forget that bureaucracies are information thirsty and that function creep is a reality:

The struggle for personal space between the individual and the community takes place on a number of fronts, and we should not expect sweeping victories for either side. There will be small advances here, mini-retreats there. In the background, the astonishing progress of technology will keep changing the context.

As I finished this book I read about the premiere of Privacy Matters‘ (Dutch spoken) film about the importance of privacy. They do not allow the embedding of their video so I will link to a version on Youtube:


The production quality of the film is incredible and the special effects are great. The final message of the film makes sense: stay aware. However, I found the tone too fear mongering and paternalistic. It made me averse to the video and left a sour taste in my mouth. Where is the constructive look towards the future?

For me this post about privacy is an unfinished conversation. There are lots of things to think about and I guess we should keep paying attention. Privacy will be one the many sociological concepts which will get a completely different meaning over the next decades. What are your thoughts on this topic?