Friday, October 14, 2011

TWIT Flipside - TWIG Episode 100

Privacy, Social Responsibility and Respect

This blog post is part of a series of blog posts that I plan to make over time. TWIT hosts a great set of podcasts with very knowledgeable and famous panelists. Sometimes, while listening to an episode, it makes me want to voice my thoughts as part of the discussion, when my opinion differs largely from that of the panel. These group of blog posts are my attempt at being part of the conversation. So, I call it "the flipside" - my view of things. It is my offline attempt to debate this more and take the mumbling out of my head and put it rest by jotting it down. I have a lot of respect for Leo Laporte and the rest of the hosts, so TWIT army, please don't take this the wrong way and bring down my site!

Background (for those who missed the show or don't watch it): One of the topics discussed in the podcast TWIG on Episode 100 was how the Google Street View cars were being blocked in Bangalore. Matt Cutts, the famous search-spam-buster from Google remarked TINAGI (This Is Not A Google Issue) and Prof. Jeff Jarvis and Leo Laporte commented how this was becoming another Blurmany.

Born in India and having grown up in Bombay (aka Mumbai) and having worked in Bangalore (aka Bengaluru), I understand some of the sentiments behind the request to stop these Google Street View cars. I also understand Google's urge to map the world and make it easy for everybody to find what they want, whenever they want and wherever they are. Google street view has been a great tool for all of us in the US and really revolutionized online mapping and GPS navigation services. But, whenever an application/service is launched in a different country, there are a variety of non-technical challenges such as social, political, geographical and security related considerations that come into play. The recent Mumbai terrorist attacks and bomb blasts in Bangalore and other parts of India has made the law enforcers there very nervous. The US has been largely successful in quashing terrorist activities in the world and has tightened its security to prevent antisocial elements from setting foot in the country. This has largely made our lifestyle in the US much safer. On the other hand, countries like India, which have a booming economy primarily due to the success of the private enterprise, have governments that are still way behind in attempts to plug terrorist activities and porous borders. Granted that all the street view cars are doing is capturing publicly available information but it is the scale and the ease of access that is the issue. I think there are some social responsibilities that come into play when launching a service like the street view. Due to tightening of security in India and other developing countries, it is probably hard for a terrorist organization to actually be able to get a detailed map of a city, leave alone the pictures of all the important and crowded locations. Making these street views, satellite imagery and detailed maps without consents of the local government could make a lot of these locations soft targets and motivate copycat mass murderers to pull stunts easily.

An analogy from the tech world is the Pwn2Own hacking contest that is organized to hack into different operating systems. Even though contestants exploit vulnerabilities in these OSs to win the prize, they are made to sign NDAs so that vendors can plug the security issues before these vulnerabilities are made public to prevent large scale exploits. I respect Prof. Jarvis's approach to privacy and I am anxious to read his new book - Public Parts. I totally understand the benefits of leading a public lifestyle and the huge benefits of the street view cars. However, in this case, I think that, unlike the privacy issue with Google Street View in Germany, this was more of an internal security issue. Additionally, in a lot of TWIG episodes, Jina Trapani correctly voices her concerns as a woman and as a famous tech person, about her preferences regarding privacy from a personal safety perspective. In TWIG Episode 115, Leo made a remark about how some personal information, if obtained by strangers (e.g. the names of his children), would make him feel creepy. I have children too and I realize that my public/privacy choices have implications when it involves my family and children. We want them to be safe and most information about them kept private, even if we like to be public about other aspects of our life.

Another related issue that gets discussed a lot on TWIG episodes, when the topic pertains to privacy, is Facebook. I dislike using that service primarily because of its privacy settings. It assumes that everything is public or essentially makes it as the default choice for you. It finds clever ways for innocent users to divulge personal information and then makes them public by making the settings complicated for even a geek to figure out. Privacy is a very personal choice. I respect the choice that a lot of people like Jeff and Leo make, to live in public. However, if it is my choice to stay private, then that choice needs to be respected by any service that I use - even if it is free. The example that Jeff correctly brings up frequently is the issue that occurs in real life - you tell your friend a secret but he/she in turn tells it to everybody else. In this very situation, don't you really hate this friend? Wouldn't you either confront him/her and ask them to never do this or probably never trust them anymore? What if divulging the secret caused personal harm to the person(s) involved? I think the same analogy and its implications apply to online privacy.

So, although, from a technical perspective, this may not be a Google issue, I think it does become an issue when you weigh in other aspects such as security and social responsibility.