Google Buzz eliminates the auto-follow features following a privacy backlash

Google Buzz has gotten off to a very rocky start, and the company is moving quickly to address privacy concerns resulting from its auto-follow feature.

The Buzz fiasco is encouraging, however, as another example of how the privacy police can alter the development and implementation of products. As we’ve seen, the Internet can be self-correcting, as users and self-anointed watchdogs work together to police new technologies and policies that can threaten our privacy. Google is the most powerful Internet company in the world, yet they understand that they have no choice but to take these concerns seriously.

This phenomenon will also strengthen our democracy and democracies (and fledgling democracies) around the world. Governments will think twice before imposing intrusive policies on their citizens.


Can you vanish during the digital age?

Wired is one of my favorite magazines, and the recent story by Evan Ratliff is one of my all-time favorites. Ratliff tried an interesting experiment, as he tried to disappear without a trace and then challenge the world to find him.

The idea for the contest started with a series of questions, foremost among them: How hard is it to vanish in the digital age? Long fascinated by stories of faked deaths, sudden disappearances, and cat-and-mouse games between investigators and fugitives, I signed on to write a story for Wired about people who’ve tried to end one life and start another. People fret about privacy, but what are the consequences of giving it all up, I wondered. What can investigators glean from all the digital fingerprints we leave behind? You can be anybody you want online, sure, but can you reinvent yourself in real life?

It’s one thing to report on the phenomenon of people disappearing. But to really understand it, I figured that I had to try it myself. So I decided to vanish. I would leave behind my loved ones, my home, and my name. I wasn’t going off the grid, dropping out to live in a cabin. Rather, I would actually try to drop my life and pick up another.

Wired offered a $5,000 bounty — $3,000 of which would come out of my own pocket — to anyone who could locate me between August 15 and September 15, say the password “fluke,” and take my picture.

The story is a compelling read, so I won’t reveal what happened. Read the story first, and then go back and read some of the follow-up blog posts.

The struggle for privacy will be one of the enduring issues facing us in this century, and we’re just getting started. The Ratliff story poses some interesting questions for all of us to ponder.


The Internet of Things

ReadWriteWeb has an interesting featuring covering the top 5 web trends of 2009. Their latest entry covers the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things is a network of Internet-enabled objects, together with web services that interact with these objects. Underlying the Internet of Things are technologies such as RFID (radio frequency identification), sensors, and smartphones.

The Internet fridge is probably the most oft-quoted example of what the Internet of Things will enable. Imagine a refrigerator that monitors the food inside it and notifies you when you’re low on milk. It also perhaps monitors all of the best food websites, gathering recipes for your dinners and adding the ingredients automatically to your shopping list. This fridge knows what kinds of foods you like to eat, based on the ratings you have given to your dinners. Indeed the fridge helps you take care of your health, because it knows which foods are good for you.

The potential impact on a new, all-digital lifestyle is quite staggering. The fridge example is a good one, but it opens up so many possibilities.

Imagine how we can monitor aging people in the future. Many seniors currently have little choice but to live in a nursing home. Assisted living is becoming much more common, but with tools like this family members, and health care providers, could more easily monitor loved ones. Home security and personal security is another huge opportunity.

On the other hand, this will raise serious privacy issues as well. In the future, will everything, and everyone, be monitored all the time?


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