Reality Mining


Two must reads in today’s New York Times:

The first, a story by John Markoff, explores the advances in “reality mining”, a term coined to capture the risks and opportunities of data-mining a full range of data about users, from location, to shopping, to online. It is hard to read this article, without understanding the need for leaders who appreciate the opportunities and risks of data to beginning setting down the parameters for ethical progress. At some point, the solution will clearly need to be a combination of technological standards, industry rules and legislation.

Without such guidance, the projects move forward subject to the personal and sometimes conflicting views of project leaders. Here’s is an example from the article:

Pentland says there are ways to avoid surveillance-society pitfalls that lurk in the technology. For the commercial use of such information, he has proposed a set of principles derived from English common law to guarantee that people have ownership rights to data about their behavior. The idea revolves around three principles: that you have a right to possess your own data, that you control the data that is collected about you, and that you can destroy, remove or redeploy your data as you wish.

At the same time, he argued that individual privacy rights must also be weighed against the public good.

Citing the epidemic involving severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in recent years, he said technology would have helped health officials watch the movement of infected people, providing an opportunity to limit the spread of the disease.

“If I could have looked at the cell phone records, it could have been stopped that morning rather than a couple of weeks later,” he said. “I’m sorry, that trumps minute concerns about privacy.”

Indeed, some researchers argue that strong concerns about privacy rights are a relatively recent phenomenon in human history.

“For most of human history, people have lived in small tribes where everything they did was known by everyone they knew,” said Thomas Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. “In some sense we’re becoming a global village. Privacy may turn out to have become an anomaly.”

The second article is from the NY Times Magazine, by our friend Jeffrey Rosen, the leading legal and privacy scholar, who takes a look at the critical decisions about censorship, legal compliance, and often privacy made by the legal and policy team at Google. Having sometimes sat in smaller versions of that seat of responsibility (Jules while at AOL and Chris in his leadership role dealing with online hate speech at the ADL and at INACH), we understand the challenge of making private sector decisions that impact the public commons. The folks at Google recognize this challenge and do call for governments themselves to play more of a definitive role in establishing the legal guidelines in each jurisdiction. Given this isnt the case yet and may never be, how Google and how many others who are also juggling competing legal and policy obligations handle these conflicts is one of the critical issues for the future of the internet.