Naked in the town square

Have you ever experienced the panicked feeling that comes from dreaming that you were naked and exposed in some public place like the town square? I have, and I have heard from others who say they have too. I’m sure many a psychiatrist has been able to pay for a yacht or put braces on his children’s teeth by interpreting such dreams, usually by making such clever observations as “You feel exposed.” Well, the field of psychiatry may soon experience a rennaisance, because a lot more of us are destined to “feel exposed” due to what I choose to think of as the dark side of connectivity.

From the time the first cave man decided to draw pictures on the wall of his cave, we have left revealing evidence that succeeding generations could discover and interpret. But in this connected age, that evidence has become both more profuse and more persistent. Not only do we reveal our thoughts and feelings in blogs like this one, but we also leave digital footprints as we pass through this life — footprints of where we were when, of how we squandered our wealth, and of who was a part of our social network. By our Internet postings in blogs, on forums, on web pages, and in email, and because of the digital trail of our financial dealings, we voluntarily and involuntarily  relinquish any claim we may have ever had to privacy.

Michelle Conlin has said, “There is no such thing as an eraser on the Internet.” Even email that is recalled inside a corporation’s email system is often read before it can be recalled. And once an email is sent, it is backed up not just on the recipient’s system where it was sent but also in the backups that are produced on the systems that transmit it along the way.

A fascinating article in today’s New Scientist Technology, titled “Pentagon sets its sights on social networking websites,” details the government’s interest in mining the information that we are supplying about ourselves at a dizzying rate.

“You should always assume anything you write online is stapled to your resumé. People don’t realise you get Googled just to get a job interview these days,” says Callas.

New Scientist Technology – Pentagon sets its sights on social networking websites

The Callas referred to above is Jon Callas, chief security officer at PGP, a Sillicon Valley-based maker of encryption software. He also says in that article, “I AM continually shocked and appalled at the details people voluntarily post online about themselves.” As innocent as it seems to list your friends on a service like a Friend of a Friend there are government entities that are interested in that information, all in the name of security.

No plan to mine social networks via the semantic web has been announced by the NSA, but its interest in the technology is evident in a funding footnote to a research paper delivered at the W3C’s WWW2006 conference in Edinburgh, UK, in late May.

That paper, entitled Semantic Analytics on Social Networks, by a research team led by Amit Sheth of the University of Georgia in Athens and Anupam Joshi of the University of Maryland in Baltimore reveals how data from online social networks and other databases can be combined to uncover facts about people. The footnote said the work was part-funded by an organisation called ARDA.

What is ARDA? It stands for Advanced Research Development Activity. According to a report entitled Data Mining and Homeland Security, published by the Congressional Research Service in January, ARDA’s role is to spend NSA money on research that can “solve some of the most critical problems facing the US intelligence community”. Chief among ARDA’s aims is to make sense of the massive amounts of data the NSA collects – some of its sources grow by around 4 million gigabytes a month.

New Scientist Technology – Pentagon sets its sights on social networking websites

I love the Internet, but there was a sleepy time in the distant past when what you did and how you chose to live your life only faced the threat of a nosey neighbor or a town gossip. Today, it’s a lot easier for people to be nosey, and in our innocence or naivete many of us are cooperating with them by voluntarily relinquishing our privacy.

A generation raised with world-wide connectivity and the social networks that fosters will never know what privacy is … or rather what it was, since for all intents and purposes, privacy no longer exists.

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3 thoughts on “Naked in the town square

  1. Mike

    I think much of this is a generation gap. Kids (by that I mean those under 22) see the social networking sites as part of normal life. In many interviews they expected they would be googled, their blogs read by employers. Those from this new generation who did interviews said they understand there is a personal life and a professional life, and understand that one doesn’t not imply something about the other (though I still will assert a librarian is a freak in the bedroom).

    Those in my generation see it as “not recommended”, or “be careful”. People older than me see it as something that needs protections, “kids don’t know what they are doing.” In one view, people have always done thing in private life the company may not like, and the company has always known this. This new practice no longer hides the fact, and may even help someone. A company would have trouble firing someone for content in a blog when they don’t fire eveyone else with similar content who work there. Also, a company will need to be upfront about it’s policy if it expects enforcements to hold in courts.

    At heart it’s a freedom of speech issue (no matter the qaulity of the speech). Should companies be allowed to control the speech of their employees, wether by direct or indirect means, and to what limits? How does this play in a Hire at Will state like TN?

    The goverment on the other hand – why bother? They all ready get all the info they need from companies like AT&T with the hassle of google.

  2. Perry Post author

    Your comments about how generations react differently are probably legitimate, though as with all things, I’m sure some individuals in each group have unique responses that deviate from the norm.

    As a member of that generation that you cautiously refer to as “people older than me,” I think my generation’s sense of threat is colored by the body of evidence we have seen throughout our relatively longer lives. I also think it is characteristic of the generation that you call “Kids” to think of themselves as invincible and not vulnerable to anything. Just consider how they drive.

    But setting aside the stereotypical differences between stodgy old farts, like me, and callow, reckless kids, I don’t sense that you disagree that connectivity fosters a lack of privacy, only perhaps that there is anything “dark” about it, as I stated.

    For what it’s worth, I think it is a fact of life and there is little need for me, or anyone else, to long for a bygone era. I recognize that I should steel myself to deal with the reality as it is now. And I will.

  3. Jerry Pounds

    Many are preoccupied with privacy; I think we want to avoid the “big brother” possibilities of excess government snooping. At a practical level, if you work for a company and you are writing about things that influence their perspective on your integrity, trustworthyness, morals and such they are certainly going to make some precipitant assumptions. People are like that.

    I am usually less concerned about this type of thing than I should be, but having written some pretty outrageous things in forums and emails I am still comforted by the fact that the Feds are generally looking for the big guys.

    Many people have bought hard drugs, steroids, illegal pharmaceuticals (not me you understand) over the internet and the Fed chooses to ignore these infractions. They are looking at the distribution level – the big guys.

    Since I don’t think I have ever said anything stupid, impulsive, snide, sneaky, immature, ill-advised or felonious that was not repeated by word of mouth, and then documented in the verbal portfolio that is maintainted in the oral tradition of Homer’s Iliad (every bad thing I have said is held against me), I am not overly worried about written documentation.

    Think about the number of novelist who have bared their souls (spilled their guts)about every depraved thought or deed. All they got for their trouble was a best seller or a movie contract. So, I have been as bad as I can be in verbal and written contexts and I am still a free man.

    I may not have to be as guarded as others.


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