LIKE MOST PEOPLE, I have some important names, addresses and phone numbers in my mobile phone’s memory. Some of these data are very private since they represent unlisted numbers or direct e-mail accounts. Because it takes me years to earn the trust of people who offer me this special information, I feel obligated to safeguard it.
Safeguarding important data involves protecting it. I back up my phone’s data onto my laptop once a week. I also back up my phone’s information to a secure zone on ZYB.com, a service acquired by Vodafone. I entrust ZYB with my data and although I can share any or all of my contacts through ZYB, I do not use that facility.
In the case of ZYB, you could say the company’s unique asset is the millions of electronic business cards stored by subscribers. Vodafone certainly values those phone numbers.
Umair Haque, in several items he has written for the Harvard Business School, would not value the data stored online as much as the flow of data through a service. Umair, one of the truly great internet analysts, also has shared thoughts about the portability of data. He offers a perspective on our connected society, our use of technology and the way the internet has blurred some previously separate distinctions.
Less than 20 years ago, I maintained small plastic folders for my collection of business cards. I would keep different cards in folders that were colour-coded by region or specialism. Today, that colour coding has evolved into electronic tags or categories where I place people. But there is a big difference—I place this entire collection online where it could be perused if permitted.
I don’t like opening up all these personal pieces of information, even for review by people I trust. I know how I feel when someone rings me on my private mobile number. I walk around with that private number like a surgeon would carry a pager. I don’t call out on it because I want my elderly mom or my wife to always have immediate access. If that private number was scraped and shared by dozens of people, I would have to get another.
My opinion isn’t shared by several thought leaders on the internet. In Robert Scoble’s opinion, if we connect and share access to phone numbers, he wants to be able to repurpose the shared items and display the data in places like FriendFeed, Upcoming.org, or Plaxo. I would not be comfortable with that degree of sharing so as a result, I have started cutting back on information kept online. I do not want to be complicit in a compromise of private data.
How we manage information we own and the expectations we have concerning its use forms part of the data portability discussion. Facebook wants to make easy work of connecting people to online friends. Facebook also wants to protect your information from being sucked out and reused by resourceful friends so it normally displays contact data as images, not as text. If you want to harvest that information, you need some sort of optical character recognition software.
Marc Canter says, “Humans have been moving their data around for years.” His People Aggregator solution facilitates this tendency with a set of tools that ensures tight controls on privacy.
Once online, your information is no longer your own responsibility. You have to trust the vendor where you put your data and that means you place your faith in the vendor’s systems. I have seen information about me in places outside of my control. I have watched clever Irish developers develop work-arounds to gain access to parts of contact lists, fact sheets, embargoed news items, private photos and genealogical information.
Once you place it online, you can lose control of how your data gets packaged and viewed.
With powerful electronic robots crawling across the social graphs of everyone who uploads a new profile on a discussion board, social network, or jobs site, we have commoditised our electronic footprints. Subversive technology has subordinated our expectation of privacy.
In the 21st century, it is very difficult to live off the grid. In fact, if you lack a prominent online identity, you may fail to qualify for a job recruiter’s short list. In a perfect world, you will decide what goes online and you will respect the expectations of others who share their details with you.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 23 May 2008.