Privacy, Venture Capital and the Common Good

Some people may say that I am naive when it comes to privacy- if you Google me, you find me; I am happy to upload a photograph of what I look like to Facebook and I even publish details of my location in the world via a calendar on my web site. No, when it comes to privacy, I leave the deep thinking in the hands (and heads) of people like Pamela Dingle.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean that I don’t care about it, after all the first time I ever thought about privacy issues was when Sam Seaborn was interviewing a prospective Supreme Court Judge on the West Wing. No, I have issues with who collects information about me and what they do with it. And I have even more issues with a service that creates a picture of my entire financial life and then stores that information somwhere that I don’t have entirely under my control.

Now you can argue that anyone can break into my house, go through my filing cabinet and create a similar picture, but the crucial difference is that I would (almost certainly) know that someone has broken in, so I would be able to immediately take some remediative action. Furthermore, even if you have all the account information, unless you can break the password codes kept in the back of my diary, you still wouldn’t be able to actually do anything.

So what has prompted this post? Well it seems that there are enough people in the world willing to trust someone else with their financial life (including passwords) for the creation of another amalgamation site: Techcrunch is reporting on Kublax offering the ability to store all your financial details, your bills and even your loyalty cards.  This is the same as Mint and Gazeo, both of which have received heavy venture capital investment.

Although there is a part of me that loves seeing the VC guys fall flat on their faces, they do perform a necessary function- after all how could Cuil afford to order in lunch every day if someone wasn’t backrolling them? So the venture capital guys see a future in sites that store everything about you and reckon that they can make some money.

And this is where is starts getting really frightening: I am not convinced that enough people are aware of the potential privacy issues to use these systems safely. And just because someone can make money out of something doesn’t necessarily mean that it is a good thing- we need checks and balances, we need to truly understand the implications of providing all this information to someone else.

If we do have the correct rules in place and people are aware of what we are getting into then this can be a useful function. If not then a few people are making money, a few companies will know more about you than they ever should and we nail another nail into our on-line world.

(Re)connecting through social networks

No one can deny the massive impact that social network sites are having on the internet world. Of course there is always the bigger question of what percentage of the real world the internet world really represents, but that is a question for another day.

I have used different social network web sites for the past 2 years (except that at the start I didn’t even know what a social network web site was, I just knew that LinkedIn had huge performance issues) and have found that the ability to reconnect with old mates is one of my favourite features. The question becomes: What do you do once you have connected via the ethernet? Ping an occasional e-mail and catch up or actually meet in real-life again.

I have tried both approaches and found that the impact of actually meeting is far greater than any number of e-mails, instant messages or pings or nudges. These are the same issues that all people who meet through the internet face: Suddenly there is no where to hide, no back space key to remove ill conceived thoughts and, worst of all, no easy way to duck out of the conversation if things are going badly. The pressure of these situations is well known on the first date, but what surprised me was that it is still present when reconnecting.

The net result of this is the that meeting can rapidly head into one of two directions:

  1. You realise that you really need to see this person more and can’t believe that you ever fell out of touch
  2. You realise that the intervening years have taken you in markedly different directions and you really have nothing in common any more

Of course when #2 occurs it is best to retreat a quick retreat, but when #1 happens…..