Bob Garfield without context

A little while back I was On the Media with Bob Garfield, after which he wrote a couple pages for his forthcoming book. Garfield called one of my comments “vaguely creepy” and I responded in a comment clarifying my point. I thought he had ignored my response, but then Yoni informed me yesterday that Garfield did follow up, in a round-about way in an August 22 post. Sadly, he still doesn’t seem to understand what I’m saying (or doesn’t want to).

4 replies on “Bob Garfield without context”

  1. That said, don’t you think that people could sometimes use a little more discretion when deciding what to publish? Just because you *can* publish something doesn’t mean you *have to*. At some point it becomes important to look at your data and decide whether more harm might come than good. Sure the data might be inherently neutral, that doesn’t mean that it will necessarily help more than it will hurt.

    I’m not saying that the phone list is bad (the public good outweighs any damage it might cause) but Who’s A Rat probably causes more harm than good.

    Think about documents that people must file with the government, that often contain personal data such as SSNs (marriage licenses, permits, etc…) which are often available for review by the public. One day someone decides to scan and OCR them all to post on the internet since, after all, they are public anyway. Now everyone’s SSN is on the internet. Ignore the fact that SSNs are used in all the wrong ways (since we’ve been complaining about that for years and still nothing has changed). It’s likely that nothing illegal has taken place, nothing that was previously private or secret was exposed, and there is a certain benefit that society gains from having that data readily available and searchable through the internet. At the same time, making all that personal data (such as SSNs) so easily accessible can be a very Bad Thing.

    I’m not suggesting any rules or regulations or anything like that, just that people think about the unintended consequences of their actions, even if they were made with good intentions.

  2. The “Who’s A Rat” site, based solely on his description, does seem pretty scary and potentially harmful, much like the site that used to target abortion providers with “wanted dead or alive” posters. But there is a lot of context there. There is a lot of framing pushing people in one particular direction, and the way the data is organized and collated is for a fairly specific purpose. Look at that in contrast with a lot of data sets that are coming online, such as DC Phone List, which has very little context to begin with. When you have one basic data set, such as a list of phone numbers and dates, you need to add a lot of context before you can make many judgments. That is where the power of the internet and “crowdsourcing” can come into play to add value to the data and to the public discourse.

    You bring up public records, which is an interesting case because they are a very reliable data source with a lot of weight, seeing as they come from a well-known and generally trusted data/identity provider. They are also data that has almost always been publicly available in some form, but there have also always been barriers to accessing the information such that only the very devoted few with a specific interest or purpose would go to the trouble (you have to travel to the local court house or public records office, pay a fee, wait a week, etc.). I think publishing SSNs is a red herring — we all know it is bad, for the reasons you stated, and generally when documents are being scanned and SSNs are being put online, sufficient outrage is directed at the provider and the SSNs are eventually wiped, which is maybe good, maybe bad, since it makes the data harder to organize. But your larger point is very valid, all of this data that has traditionally been fairly hidden is now jumping into view, and there are social consequences to that.

    I’m a big believer in personal privacy. A lot of things about how we interact online bother me. I’m not sure I have a fully formed view about what to do with public records. People where I work sometimes talk about this problem in terms of social friction (although I’m not sure they use that exact word, I may be making it up). Social norms are often based on environmental factors, on proximity, on location. People who go against the social norms face friction, the possibility of being shunned or having other social actions taken against them. Look at how people view private investigators warily, but generally tolerate their presence. As long as they remain a small minority with esoteric knowledge, and as long as they aren’t out ruining everyone’s live and reputations, we see that they can play a valuable social role, at least occasionally.

    But maybe I’m getting off track. I’m just saying that there is a value to making data hard to access, just as much as their is a value to making it easy. Bob Garfield is obsessed with the permanence of data online, of the inability of our past to fade with time. He has a point but I think it is overstated. Old data *does* frequently disappear into the abyss, it stops getting linked to or the site it is on goes offline, or old newspapers stories disappear behind pay walls, or new data supplements it. The Star Wars kid is still out there, but people don’t much care anymore, there are so many other YouTube videos to laugh at.

    So I don’t by any means think it is too early to think about these questions, but I do think it is too early to throw in the towel and start looking for the reset button. These are complicated and difficult issues. In some ways, we are going to lose a lot of our anonymity and our privacy in the coming years, and already are now. But in other ways we are going to gain more, as the community in which we exist extends beyond all geographic bounds, as the amount of information increases faster than the ability of the tools to analyze it, and as we find new ways to “own” and control our own data, rather than allowing others (vendors, identity providers, governments, credit agencies) to own all the data about us. It would be a good idea to keep an eye on things like Project VRM for current thinking in this field.

  3. danny,

    actually, i responded far more directly to your point, much earlier, since i am in effect using the blog to serialize a chapter in my book-in-progress. the chapter “Nobody is Safe from Everybody” was blogged pretty much every day in august, and the response you seem to find wanting showed up on august 3.

    you conclude i am obsessed with “permanence.” not quite true. i’m obsessed with the convergence of permanance, irresponsibility, invasion of privacy and malice. moreover, at least in your case, i’m not drawing conclusions. i don’t think it’s an open-and-shut case. but it raises alarms, because there will be victims.

  4. Fair enough, although I thought that the 8/3 entry was published prior to my comment, which I wrote on either the 3rd or the 4th (sadly the site doesn’t list dates).

    Have you taken a look at Wikiscanner? It seems like a better example than DCPhoneList of the positive effects of crowdsourcing, and it is something I wish I had thought of and done myself. Seeing the formerly-anonymous Wikipedia edits from IP addresses of big businesses and the like is interesting, revealing, funny, and insightful. And, Stephen Colbert argues on his comedy show, unfair in that it violates the privacy of the contributors. 🙂

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