Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Outernet and Search Inversion

The Lobster Trap of Internet Privacy

Internet anonymity is disappearing. I've written earlier about why I've given up on maintaining a distinction between my professional and personal selves. Not only is it impractically difficult to maintain, but attempting to do so increasingly marks one as an information age fuddy-duddy, or as someone trying to hide something indelicate. Everyone is connected all the time and everywhere by ever-more ubiquitous mobile computational power and fat-pipe bandwidth. What we do, when and why are now continuously memorialized. The GPS features of phones, along with applications such as Foursquare and Gowalla provide such a rich timeline that the future job security of forensic investigators is likely imperilled.

Big Brother is Watching You poster
Ceding one's anonymity also entails abandoning quaint notions of privacy. When I Google myself some of the results include comments I have made to blog posts in the past, some of them years old. (Yes, I do periodically search on my own name. Doesn't everyone? Brand experts advise one do so. You know potential employers and business partners are searching on your name; don't you want to know what they're finding about you?)

The signs of our complete Internet outing are everywhere. Remember anonymous comments to articles and blog posts? A thing of the past--"Login to comment" is utterly standard and unremarkable to nearly everyone. The imprecations to surrender to the 'net are relentless. It doesn't matter how many times I tell Google or Twitter "No thanks" to "enabling" my location disclosure, both services continue to badger me with the question. I suppose at some point, as with a tireless toddler whining for some treat, I may, through irritation or inattention, agree to do so. And having been given their figurative ice cream I suspect they will not check back frequently to ask me if I'd like to rescind my newly granted cyber-exhibitionism.

Privacy policies? Facebook's kaleidoscopic one is becoming typical. Early on you agree to some version of opt-out: having once agreed to the terms of service, you have generally agreed to all subsequent changes unless you actively and explicitly reject them (and generally must reject all use of the service as well.) The result is a relentless erosion of one's privacy, a systematic stripping of the veils. The whole thing reminds me of a lobster trap, it's much easier to travel one way than the other. The Internet privacy lobster trap makes it easy to be out and almost impossible to shut oneself back into a private space.

Steve Saunders, writing originally in Information Week, connects the dots to make a disturbing observation:
Search services like Google and Bing, social media networks like Facebook and MySpace, computer software developers like Microsoft, and e-commerce sites like Amazon and E-Bay now monitor and store information about users' search activity and use this data to create profiles about who the searchers are (identity), where they are (location), what they want (preferences), how much money they have (financial status), and what they are likely to do or buy next (predictive analysis).

These user profiles are already valuable to companies looking to target consumers in the virtual world of the Internet with advertising for their real-world goods and services. But as the Internet replaces traditional supply chains, these profiles are set to become an asset of increasing, almost inestimable worth – the equivalent of the commodities that powered the industrial revolution.
Vast troves of information about each of us are now being collated together, partly with our active participation, and partly through the inexorable commercial forces that have discovered and are now demanding ever-more detailed and precise data by which to target their marketing. We have become so used to getting our content for free, and creating it for free (as I do this blog) that we will hardly notice when we ourselves become the content.
It is 2029 – exactly 40 years after the invention of the World Wide Web. Not a long time in the history of the planet, but an eon in the history of the Internet.

The Internet has now completed its metamorphosis to “Outernet” – a transformation marked by two tipping points, which occur within a few years of each other.

In the first of these tipping points, the Internet’s primary role changes to that of a surveillance network rather than an information portal. The number of devices connected to the Internet whose function is to observe Internet users via sensors, probes, spyware, and cameras now outnumbers, for the first time, the devices that you, the Internet user, employ to look at the content of the Internet. The Internet is watching you.

In the second tipping point, the Internet profiling industry, which had its roots in pioneering search and social networking companies such as Google and Facebook, and which uses the Internet as a tool to gather information and make money from the people attached to it, has fully matured. For the first time, the monetary value of the profiles about Internet users exceeds the value of the digital information (music, television, gaming, business data, etc.) stored on the Internet itself. The profiles become commodities bought and sold on “profile markets” or “identity exchanges” – the digital DNA equivalents of today’s financial exchanges.

At this point in the history of mankind, the Internet has become an incredibly sophisticated targeting system for companies to sell "stuff" to consumers, for governments to keep track of their citizens, and for law enforcement agencies to track or discourage illicit activity.
The result? Search inversion--the 'net will be less about our searching for things than it will be about organizations searching for us. They're already looking... and finding.

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