Sunday, July 12, 2009

Turn on, Log in, Opt out

Despite the scare stories and bar stool reasoning which informs so much public opinion, we are only really starting to scratch the surface when it comes to the debate, let alone the understanding of the durability of our digital footprints; Those patterns and trails our online activity leaves for others to find.

We vaguely understand the notion of a 'privacy policy' or data privacy legislation but appreciating when something is in the public domain or not is far from obvious, if one thinks about it at all.

This is of course partly to do with the still nascent technology and culture the Internet has spawned. We have little in the way of societal opinion, no tradition, no common knowledge passed down from parent to child, as is the case with longer hewn technologies.

Telephones on the other hand, we do understand! We understand our phone numbers and we know whether or not we want them freely available.

Generally most people didn't object to their land lines being listed in a directory, even if recently this carried the added admin of having to pay the TPS a visit to minimize cold calls.

However, mobile phones it seems provoke a different response. The cell phone is a much more personal device, the on-device address book acts as much as a representation of identity, peer group allegiance and lifestyle as it does a convenient method for dialing. We are, it seems, much less free and easy giving out our cell phone numbers.

Which is why perhaps that the 118800 service in the UK prompted such emotive reaction.

The service provides a directory of mobile phone numbers, but of course, seeing as mobile operators don't then there is no central source for the contents of 118800 directory. Their contents have been acquired from commercially traded lists, ie all those shops, services, online stores, utilities companies etc whose forms contain small print about 'passing on details to third parties'. Sometimes we opt out, sometime we think we have, some times we forget, but regardless, the notion of data being passed on to 'selected third parties' still requires a conceptual leap to what is essentially placing details such as one's cell phone number in the public domain - the raison d'etre of a directory. To be fair 118 800 doesn't give out the numbers, it just connects you for a fee.

If none of that bothers you then all is well. There are advantages in people being able to look up your number, the same as they could for a land line. Much of it depends on how you use your mobile phone and what job you feel it does for you.

However, those who were concerned about inclusion in the directory were comforted with the knowledge that they could simply visit the 118800 website and have their number removed. Or at least, that was the promise ... unfortunately the web site is currently down! Whether this is because it has crumpled under the sheer volume of traffic from would be 'opt outs' as some reports would suggest, or whether there is some other more mundane problem I can't say, but I suspect that the unsubscribe service will, when active, be pretty popular.

Now, as we do develop a cultural sense of our digital shadows, is the new frontier to be characterized by constant opting out and curating of public and hidden information? Or will we find, we just don't care?


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