Crowdsourcing vs privacy: do we know too much?

April 18th, 2011 by

microtask_crowd_privacyBack in the 1950s, the U.S. writer Louis Kronenberger famously complained that TV had “given privacy its death blow.”.

The pronouncement turned out to be a little premature. It’s hard to imagine what Kronenberger would have said about the rise of the internet (possibly that the web was doing something very nasty to privacy’s corpse).

60 years on, the battle between privacy and technology shows no sign of letting up.

The very nature of crowdsourcing means it is often at the forefront of privacy issues. The last few months have been embarrassingly rich in privacy-related crowdsourcing disasters. Take Internet Eyes, a crime detection service that uses the crowd to monitor live CCTV camera feeds. The company has faced a storm of criticism from civil rights groups, the UK’s Internet Commission, and (ahem) this blog. In March, one shopkeeper who installed Internet Eyes got so many complaints from customers that he left the service a week later.

Playing tag
For many people Internet Eyes seems invasive, Orwellian, and just plain creepy. However, most online privacy issues are more subtle. Geotagging is a prime example. 2011 is set to be a breakthrough year for Geotagging apps, with Facebook Places, Foursquare and Gowalla all eager to grab the biggest share of the market. But, though it might be a good way to score cheaper Starbucks, playing with virtual maps has hidden dangers.

In an earlier blog post we discussed how a group of over-enthusiastic baseball fans used Foursquare to organize a riot in San Francisco. Influential blogger Aaron Strout has also voiced his “personal” concerns about Facebook Places, describing the service as “a privacy nightmare”. What if friends (or enemies) start gaming your location: tagging you in places when you aren’t really there? Imagine trying to explain to your fiancé why Facebook says you’ve spent all day at your ex’s apartment?

It’s easy to forget that underneath the innovation and idealism, the web is basically the world’s most sophisticated billboard. The more you feed information into Places, the more Facebook can “geo-target” and personalize its ads. Cue this terrifying scene from Minority Report.

Fanning the flames
For all the talk about personal privacy, human beings are addicted to gossip. Before language was invented, cavemen probably sat around grunting and winking about what Fred and Wilma were doing down in the swamp.

The ultimate mud-rakers are, of course, the paparazzi. Member of this dubious profession keep the world supplied with an endless stream of celebrity photos (inspiring shots like “Angelina Jolie buys milk” and “Justin Bieber checks his watch”). Now, a new iPhone app for gossip lovers promises to make celebrities’ lives even more over-exposed. Says the press release: “All you have to do is take a picture of a celebrity on your phone using this app and your image will be instantly submitted from anywhere around the globe to Big Pictures so that you can make LOADS of INSTANT CASH!”. If I was a famous soccer player, I’d start worrying about fans with smartphones.

The debate around privacy has been going on for at least the last 60 years – probably much longer. I guess this means there really are no easy solutions. The question is, how do we encourage crowd collaboration without creating a frenzied online mob? Plus, as social networks grow, how do we share data while safeguarding personal information? Right now, it’s hard to tell whether we’re entering a new era of openness or just creating a lot of future lawsuits. Let’s just hope that whatever happens, we don’t all end up living like celebrities: totally without private lives.


  • Sukshan Sakdsrinarang

    Privacy is something we are forced to give up nowadays in exchange for a more convenient lifestyle. In many cases, disclosing our private information is the only way to grant access to certain features in a website. In an age where information is everything, our information is going to be worth more than we can imagine.


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