Nowhere to hide

Spycoffee

I’ve just finished reading Spy in the Coffee Machine by Kieron O’Hara and Nigel Shadbolt. This book is subtitled “the end of privacy as we know it” and includes an alarming picture of a coffee cup that has been turned into an eye. To be honest this isn’t the sort of book that I’d normally buy, from the cover I concluded that this was some kind of anti-Web 2.0 book that would have spent its time diagnosing various kinds of decadence that I and Western society are suffering from because of the need to share information with the world in general. However, I was way off the mark and the book is actually much more measured than the Orwellian cover might suggest. O’Hara and Shadbolt are internet enthusiasts who feel that the challenge to privacy is more than compensated by the opportunities that it offers. However, they also caution against letting the positives create a world where the idea of private data is allowed to vanish altogether.

O’Hara and Shadbolt are interested in the issue of privacy and how new technologies are transforming this. The books gets pretty techy at times (you’ll learn the difference between PKI,PGP and P3Ps) but, is actually most interested in the human bit of the machine. Having said that, one of the most interesting bits of the book is the discussion of Moore’s law. This “law” states that the power of computing doubles every 18 months or so, which means that the power of computers to synthesise, search, investigate and penetrate our lives is likely to go on increasing with corresponding impact on privacy. This is a technical book about internet privacy, but it is also a book about the politics and philosophy of different approaches to privacy.Broadly the book makes the following points:

  • The development of the internet has fundamentally changed our approach to privacy. Information is now routinely shared across the world in ways that would have been limited by simple logistics before the development of the internet.
  • It is possible for government and other state-like bodies to regulate issues relating to privacy. However users are likely to find ways to circumvent these regulations. This is likely to mean that privacy continues to be challenged despite governmental attitudes.
  • When privacy is challenged it is usually because of human actions rather than faults with machines. Your decision to publish your drunken antics on Facebook or to give your credit card details to the phishing email are a much bigger issue than organised and purposeful attempts to hack the security on your computer.
  • That privacy has a particular place in the philosophy and practice of different political systems. Therefore changes in the nature of privacy are likely to have wider political and economic implications.
 O’Hara and Shadbolt argue that in liberalism/Western political models there are three spaces the wholly public e.g. government, the wholly private e.g. your bedroom and the in-between e.g. the world of clubs and societies.  It is pretty obvious how the internet starts to challenge this model. Things that are published for our small worlds e.g. the parish newsletter are now available online and for all. The public and the in-between have come together. The decision by some to post details of their private lives in public or semi-public spaces e.g. Facebook, dating sites etc means that the distinction is blurred further.

Essentially this means that our notion of privacy is going to change. O’Hara and Shadbolt aren’t unduly worried about this, they discuss both positive and negative implications, exploring how it might impact on our relationship with the state (big brother?), with our friends and colleagues (little brother?) etc. They are clear that we can’t put the internet back in the box and that while it is important that we regulate appropriately and educate users about privacy issues, we are also going to have to accept a different level of privacy as normal.

Issues around the internet and privacy get quite a lot of coverage from commentators on careers and recruitment. Usually these articles focus on frightening people off of social networking. “Don’t put your drunken photos online, potential employers will be frightened off” they scream. So Career Builders’ recent survey noted that 35% of employers had made the decision not to hire people based on what they found by googling them up. Conversely 18% said that they had hired people after looking at their online presence. I find this very interesting. Firstly the idea that recruiters are spending time researching candidates suggests a pretty high quality recruitment process. If you get a decent response to a job advert it can be challenging to even read all of the applications, let alone to chase them down and work out what they do with their weekends. Secondly it is interesting what employers are supposedly concerned about 53% were worried about inappropriate photographs while 44% were worried about drugs. Only 20% were worried about candidates who shared confidential information from their previous employer.

This seems weird to me! When I recruit people I don’t think that I’m particularly worried about the odd picture of them with a wine glass in their hand. Especially if I’m recruiting a (usually young) graduate I’d pretty much expect it. OK, so they like to cut loose at weekends, fine, it doesn’t really tell me anything relevant either positive or negative. If, however, they are invisible online I’d be much more worried. The higher up the professional ladder the  more I’d expect/be positively influenced by someone who gives good Google. If you’ve been active in your field for years and you aren’t mentioned anywhere online I’d wonder what you’d been doing. Maybe I’m unusual in this, but it seems to me that employers should be more interested in the positive evidence of professional activity than in the negative evidence of foolish indiscretion. Having said that – there is no harm in checking the privacy settings on your Facebook account.

Any thoughts on this?

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