Posts tagged “ubiquitous computing”

The Last Days Of Privacy

Last week Adaptive Path very generously hosted a presentation by Adam Greenfield, tied in with his new book Everyware.

I enjoyed the talk for the most part. He’s so passionate, respectful and articulate about the challenges facing designers as we unleash new technologies that have the potential to track insane amounts of data (he gave examples such as a door that would know who was approaching it based on sensors in the floor that match style of gait to a person’s name, and lock or unlock accordingly) in order to offer new functionality. Adam is thinking about ethical design principles for ubiqutious computing and certainly found a receptive audience with his presentation.

No disrespect to Adam, but I found the technological focus a bit wearisome, and wanted to hear more about the human element. Although the technologies he is warning us about are new(ish), the issues are really wrapped up in our discussions around privacy. The cultural behaviors (the culture of manufacturers who want the data, of designers who face these questions, of consumers who consider tradeoffs between privacy and functionality) are actively challenging and being challenged right now. Even if the technology of Google is not the same technology as an RFID chip in a credit card, the cultural and market issues are the same. This is happening now, so what is the point in drawing a line in the sand and saying “let’s focus on design values for everything on the other side of this line”?

Case-in-point in THE LAST DAYS OF PRIVACY in the SF Chron recently.

Pay By Touch admits it has encountered some resistance among shoppers it approached in supermarkets that already use the company’s fingerprint service. But Morris, its president, says many of these customers are quickly won over by the convenience of Pay By Touch, which is free for consumers, and that the company keeps data points based on users’ fingerprints, not actual fingerprints. So far, supermarkets in 40 states use the Pay By Touch system.

Pay By Touch says it takes great care to safeguard its users’ data. After fingerprints are converted into algorithms, they’re encrypted, then stored in IBM computers. Those algorithms can’t be reconverted into an exact copy of the fingerprint, though Pay By Touch may eventually store users’ actual fingerprints if the technology improves, Morris says. The company insists it will never sell users’ personal information or fingerprints to anyone else — a pledge that’s backed up in writing when users sign up with the company. But what if federal authorities, citing national security, insist on the finger scan and payment history of a Pay By Touch user?
Pam Dixon, who heads the World Privacy Forum, a public research group, went to Chicago to warn potential Pay By Touch users about possible dangers.
“It didn’t stick,” she says. “People were (more) concerned with (convenience than) the potential risks. People can put their thumb on a pad and be done with it. But meanwhile, their biometric data is sitting with another company, a third party, that’s subject to subpoena. One argument that I made: Let’s say that every supermarket in the country, particularly the large chains, (use) a biometric payment system. It’s a law enforcement dream because who needs a biometric database run by the U.S. government when you’ve got one being run by private companies?”

“(Users) like that they don’t have to pull their card out anymore. They (tell us they) like that they don’t have to carry their (purses or wallets) through the parking lot of an urban supermarket. There’s a physical security benefit. Their numbers are never displayed. The safety of securing their data is the No. 1 thing they like.”

No surprise to anyone reading that this is the angle I’m more interested in. Now, Adam didn’t ignore this angle by any means; he proposed a series of icons that would alert people to the fact that data was being collected in an environment and so on. But I think the challenges to addressing these issues are more fundamental – Adam is asking how things change when we’re interacting with a technology that’s in the room somewhere, rather than simply typing at a keyboard (a more deliberate act). But we don’t have a good handle yet on the fundamental cultural issues – the tradeoffs that people are making between what a technology affords and what they may be giving up. It’s the same issue no matter where that is happening, and solving for this new special case seems moot if we don’t get a handle on the underlying socio-cultural aspects.


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