Digital trails

March 30, 2009 at 2:00 am Leave a comment

Coincidentally, I was reading the other day on collective intelligence and how GPS, your cell phone, credit card information and web surfing habits are just part of the many ways we leave digital trails of ourselves. Then Marc sent me a link to this article from The New York Times.

Some MIT students are swapping their privacy for a smartphone and allowing researchers to track their moves within a dorm of 100 students. So researchers will know all the music listened to, the emails and text messages sent and the location of the students. Clearly, this is a fabulous way to understand a social network and its collective actions. It’s the wisdom of crowds stuff that can ultimately help forecast social trends, financial behaviour and so on. And since we are increasingly choosing to interact with each other through social networks and digital devices, there is a wealth of information in the digital trails we leave behind. So it’s about making the invisible visible.

Citysense, for example, shows the overall activity level of a city, top activity hotspots and places with unexpectedly high activity, all in real-time. The data is derived from Yelp (an online site that provides user reviews and recommendations of restaurants, shopping, night life), Google and cell phone locations. Citysense “senses” the most popular places based on actual real-time activity and displays a live heat map. Pretty cool.

Pachube is another “network sensor” that I really like. I used this to check out Hong Kong (as I’ll be there soon) to see what the pollution is like. Pachube enables you to connect, tag and share real time sensor data from anywhere in the world. So you could connect your electricity meter to Pachube to track energy use over time; you can track pollution or climate data in a particular city; basically it patches the planet.

But (yep, there’s always a but with  me) the article points out (and I’ve said this before) that collective intelligence could be used against us. The big fear in my mind is how insurance companies could use data to identify people in a population suffering from certain diseases and deny them health cover.

Just last week too came news of the UK’s Government latest (and ridiculous) anti-terrorist measure – mass surveillance and tracking of people who use social networking sites including Facebook, MySpace and Bebo (mmm…glad I haven’t restored by Facebook presence after my hissy fit). Even Sir Tim Berners-Lee was recently warning about the dangers of deep packet inspection, which is the monitoring of traffic on the internet and communications networks.

The mind boggles when thinking about how collective intelligence could be used against us. Powerful new technologies make it possible to draw up your profile without you even knowing.  So the privacy challenges will be around protecting individual identity and security of data. And then of course data collected by network sensors could be subject to subpoena.

Collective intelligence is all about the network, the public, the collective. So the future of collective intelligence I think is going to be weighed up against what benefits the public good over individual privacy. Google FluTrends is another example of a sensing network and tracks flu trends across the US. Obviously of great benefit to the public to know that a flu outbreak is happening in say Chicago. But if data is disclosed and linked to a particular user can you imagine what the repercussions might be – the person could be banned from travelling, health insurance companies might deny insurance coverage and so on.

Privacy law has got to keep up with these technology trends otherwise we will be left with no safeguards against our individual data, behaviour and movements being vulnerable to exploitation.

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Entry filed under: Civil liberties, Privacy, Social networks. Tags: , , , , , .

How curious! GFHF CoPs

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