A FEW MONTHS AGO, while walking the streets of Copenhagen, a friend rang to ask if I “had found Wagamama yet”. Not only did he know where to find the best noodles in Denmark, he also knew I was close by the restaurant. That’s because I was carrying a Series 60 third edition Nokia phone with a Jaiku add-on. Months later, Google bought Jaiku and now whenever I use my Nokia phone, Google can log my steps. For some people, Google is their best friend, helping them keep track of their teenagers. For others, Google is getting to be more like Big Brother.
Some people have realised that machines in their lives are informants.When I snap and send a photo to Flickr, I often use Zonetag which automatically embeds geographical information on the images. By searching for that geodata, I can see other people, places and events near the place where the photo was taken. When I finish a morning jog around the Rock of Cashel, my Nike shoes know the time, date and distance that I ran. If I cable my iPod Nano into my laptop, a piece of software stored on a web server somewhere in California tells me the amount of calories I burned.
When taken together in an aggregate, this information forms a very public picture of my lifestyle. In some circles, people call my public picture a lifestream. In other circles, my lifestream is a troubling example of self-surveillance. Wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann has even coined the phrase "sousveillance" to define the practice.
Several examples of sousveillence have sparked interesting discussion among commentators. Justin.tv is a live webcam mounted on a guy’s baseball cap as he goes about his daily life. Watching it feels like an upskirt video mashed together with Big Brother. Hasan Elahi, a conceptual artist and academic snaps images of virtually everything he does and uploads them, along with GPS data and other personal info, like bank statements, to his website TrackingTransience.net. You can see what he's up to at pretty much any time by visiting the site.
Elahi was inspired to document his life like this after being detained and questioned by the FBI at an airport for being a terrorist. Once cleared by polygraphs, Elahi figured the best way to make sure he didn't end up being detained ever again was to make sure he could account for his every move.
You don’t have to wear a webcam to join the sousveillence society. All you have to do is share your keystrokes with Google search. Many people already do this because they treat internet searching as the killer application of the modern information economy. You can get faster results, perhaps recommendations to information you did not know existed, by trusting Google with your keystroke history. And why not? Google has things we use like the world’s best search engine, clever (and free) email, online document management—all the things that cut costs and save time.
Yet when you read between the lines, you can figure out what Google wants to achieve with all this generosity. Google’s chief executive, Eric Schmidt, made some interesting comments in London a few months ago. He declared that the company’s goal was to collect as much personal data as it could on individual users so that it could improve the quality of its search results and even recommend things. “We are very early in the total information we have,” he said. “We don’t know enough about you. The goal is to enable Google users to be able to ask questions such as ‘What shall I do tomorrow?’ and ‘What job shall I take?’”
Although privacy advocates howled at this perspective, most of us don’t seem to mind that virtually everything we do can be linked to the web where it is searchable online. People hunting for jobs already know this when confronted in an interview with a compromising picture from Bebo. Some hopeful candidates never make the interview stage because of the tone of voice they blast from their blogs.
In a world connected by universal search, it will be more difficult to escape notice in video archives, discussion board posts or music preferences.
At the moment, I don’t care if Google knows I like pasta. However, I do care that friends don’t seem to comprehend the difficulty in regaining the shield of personal privacy once it drops away.