By Steve Outing
Surveys of Americans confirm that many people think it’s pretty darn creepy that the National Security Agency (NSA) is scooping up and storing vast amounts of Internet and telephone data on you and me, in case its intelligence analysts need to go after a suspected terrorist by connecting the digital dots. Should you ever have lunch with an NSA employee, he or she may know way more about you than you would feel comfortable with.
But a degree of creepiness below NSA level can be had by anyone who wants to check out a prospective date, job applicant, fellow workshop attendee, or Craigslist user who’s interested in renting your home. Over time, the creepiness factor will become higher and higher with tools available for use by anyone.
Of course, right now it’s simple enough to do a web and social-media search to learn about someone new to you. You won’t know as much as an NSA analyst, but you won’t be about to meet a total “stranger.” … That’s good, right?
Where the situation turns from “useful” to “creepy” is in the convenience of collecting online personal information about an individual you don’t yet know. Here are a few examples of techniques and tools that I consider “useful” and not creepy:
- Useful: Google search a woman you met at a party and plan to ask on a date, or a candidate you are considering offering a job. As long as you don’t dig (a.k.a., stalk) too obsessively, you might find out some things that allow the initial conversation to go more smoothly, or help you make the hiring decision.
- Useful: Rapportive is a handy Gmail add-on that takes over the right column of your Gmail pages. When you open a message, Rapportive finds and displays as much information about the sender as it can: LinkedIn profile; Facebook page; Twitter account; recent e-mails between you and the person, if they exist; etc. It’s a convenient tool when you receive a personal e-mail from someone who you do not yet know, or to refresh your memory about someone who you haven’t communicated with in a long while and want to catch up on his/her activity.
- Useful: Falcon is a Chrome browser extension that, like Rapportive, quickly pulls up information on anyone who you spot while using any of 14 social platforms. For example, when using Twitter, Falcon can find online information about anyone in your tweet-stream. (I’ve found Falcon to be a bit buggy.) … There’s also The Entelo Button, a similar tool for finding information about anyone you come across on certain websites.
Where the situation starts to get privacy-creepy is when tools emerge that make it really easy, fast, and mobile to discover information about a stranger. One that raised a couple of hairs on the back of my neck is Refresh, a social-discovery app for smartphones that’s currently in private beta. (I’m on the waiting list, but haven’t been able to try the app yet.)
I’d rate Refresh as “Very Useful but also potentially Creepy,” based on descriptions on Refresh’s website. Here’s how the company describes its forthcoming app:
Get to know the people you’re meeting in 30 seconds or less
Refresh makes it easy to get to know the people you’re meeting by generating insights from social networks and bundling them together into one easy-to-browse briefing. In 30 seconds or less, you can get a snapshot of their lives — passions, achievements, jobs, trips taken, close friends, interests — that sparks conversation interesting to both of you.“
Here’s a useful scenario for using the Refresh app: You show up for a job interview knowing the name of the person you’ll meet initially, and previously will have searched online for information about them. But the interview process includes meeting other managers, and you learn their names right before visiting their offices. Use Refresh to learn about these people quickly on your smartphone, so you go in knowing a few things that might make the conversation more effective, and improve your chances of getting the job offer.
Now a creepy scenario: A married man attending an out-of-town conference spots an attractive woman and sees her event name tag. Because he’s a charismatic but ethically challenged guy looking for some physical action, he uses Refresh to learn about the woman’s interests, passions, professional background, etc. He figures out how to start a conversation with this attractive stranger, knowing what to say to get her interested. They end up in bed together in his hotel room that night, the woman none the wiser that she’s been “cyber stalked.”
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with what Refresh is designed to do, and it will be incredibly useful for many people, especially journalists in the field reporting and meeting strangers. Refresh will give reporters a tool to help in determining if an interviewee or eyewitness is telling the truth about themselves. But, of course, Refresh can and will be used for sleazy purposes; it’s inevitable.
Where things get really dicey is with hardware and software solutions that go beyond typing a name into a smartphone app. Google Glass, for instance, could have an app that identifies a person by facial recognition and then pulls up information on the person on the fly. That might be useful at an industry conference, but also a bit creepy. Using Google Glass to pull up personal information on someone walking in the street or people at a party without their knowledge is definitely creepy.
For now, at least, Google is taking the high road and will not allow Glass apps to include facial recognition. But that hasn’t stopped some techies from hacking facial recognition into Glass anyway. (It’s doubtful that the CIA or FBI, or military agencies, will be prevented from designing facial-recognition apps for Glass for use by agents and soldiers. They already have mobile facial recognition technology at their disposal.)
Incorporating facial recognition and instant information retrieval into smartphones and wearable camera technology tethered to smartphones seems inevitable, despite the equally inevitable backlash from privacy activists and citizens concerned about the move toward a “big brother” society.
- Refresh is just the beginning of making the discovery of information about strangers fast, cheap, and simple — and mobile
- Technology advances in stranger identification will find their way into smartphone apps used by anyone
- Protests from privacy advocates will be loud, but efforts to squash technology such as mobile-device face recognition will fail
- Journalists and law-enforcement personnel will embrace these tools, but not without feeling the heat when a subject feels that his or her privacy has been violated
- A growing number of people, concerned about the expansion of the “surveillance state,” will opt out of participating in online services and social media sites in an effort to “get off the surveillance grid”
- A majority of people will come to accept the idea that others can instantly call up information about them, because they will benefit from instantly pulling up information on others; it will be the end of forgetting the name of a colleague’s spouse at the office holiday party
- Most of us will become more cautious about what personal information we post as “public” on social-media and other websites