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Is privacy a dying luxury?

Earlier this summer, a story appeared in the press about a new Israeli company,, which claims to provide the ability to recognise a photograph of a face on the web, create an algorithm based on measurements and then use the data to search for other pictures of the same person on sites such as Flickr and Facebook. This seems to be a tremendously important innovation and with 90% reliability at launch, it is a clear indicator of the future of image-based search.

Today, there are controls on the software and how it can be used, so abuse is not easy, but the can-opener is in clear sight of the worm-tin.  It seems inevitable that within a very short time anyone will be able to snap a picture of any passer-by and find out who they are in seconds.

Meanwhile, in our industry we talk of the War on Cash, replacing the anonymity of notes and coins with an electronic payment which of course, creates a full audit trail.

This has got me thinking. If I buy something on the internet, there is a clear audit trail back to me. If I buy something in a shop with cash, I have a degree more privacy. But soon, as I walk into a shop, the technology will exist for anyone to take a photo (or look at the ever-present CCTV footage) and find out who I am. In short, my secret addiction to Liquorice Allsorts is soon to be secret no more.

From a technical perspective, we are heading for a totally connected world, with omniscient search tools, ever looser definitions of information ownership and all-electronic transactions. Does that mean that the anonymity and privacy that we take for granted could disappear within a generation or two?  After all, anyone with the resources – and of course the interest – should be able to work out where we are, what we are doing and how we are transacting at any time.

And is that truly a terrifying thought? In most societies, the growth of innovation has come in parallel with a broader acceptance of what is considered acceptable behaviour. Those classic Victorian values of sobriety, chastity and hypocrisy worked at a time when it was easy to disappear for a few days at will. Maybe adjusting to a society where secrets are just plain impractical will mean changes not just to our behaviour, but also to our expectations.

Arguably for most, anonymity is a pretty recent phenomenon. Just a generation or two ago, privacy really only applied to city-dwellers. Without mass personal transport, most people were restricted as to where they could go and what they could buy; Mr Roth in the local sweet shop would have kept a special supply of Liquorice Allsorts behind the counter for me just because he knew that they were my favourite and once Mr Roth knew, so did everyone else. In the press coverage of, most of the articles expressed concern that the enforcers of privacy rights were being slow to move on this new area of innovation. In electronic payments, similar reservations are voiced.

Yet in reality, it seems history will judge those who kick against technology on the grounds of privacy in the same way as poor old King Canute, remembered for sitting on his throne by the sea, apparently trying to turn back the very tides. Poor guy was actually reported to have used the exercise as a demonstration of humility, crying, "Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws." In short, robes and crowns do not make a man more powerful than nature. Tragically for Canute’s reputation, with no effective way to preserve the information, his actions and words were taken out of context and posterity has not been kind. If only he had been on Facebook.


Comments: (1)

Ketharaman Swaminathan
Ketharaman Swaminathan - GTM360 Marketing Solutions - Pune 02 November, 2011, 17:23Be the first to give this comment the thumbs up 0 likes

Privacy is what I'd term "dishygeine factor" - the exact opposite of 'no big deal if you have it but a big deal if you don't have it'. Much as privacy advocates make it out to be a redline issue, privacy seems to be like many other things that simply have a price on them. As Mint, Offermatic and many others have shown, if you lure them with strong enough incentives (like money-saving offers in this case), you can manage to get a lot of people to reveal almost anything about themselves (such as username and password to their bank accounts). 

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