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Putting a value on your identity

17 May 2011
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What follows is my editorial from the May 2011 issue of HardCopy magazine:

Identity is a funny thing. We all have one, and at some deep level we all know how important it is. Witness our panic at the thought of approaching a border post unable to find our passport, or the idea that someone else might have access to our bank accounts. On the other hand, we’re happy to give away considerable amounts of personal information with little thought as to how it might be used – until, that is, something goes wrong.

Two events have brought the issues that surround personal identity and privacy to the fore recently. Firstly, there was the Sony PlayStation Network hacks in which the personal details of over 100 million users look to have been compromised. This was a case of straightforward identity theft, with the added frisson that it might include your credit card details. Exactly how much this was down to lax security on Sony’s part is not known – although as I write this very question has become the sharp end of a class action suit seeking $1 billion in damages.

The other event, namely the discovery that Apple has been quietly collecting the location of its mobile devices (although to be fair, a number of other companies do the same) seems at first sight less threatening. After all, the information is used to provide us with useful services, such as up-to-date traffic reports. What was more concerning was the initial response of Apple, which was both patronising and pedantic.

Some years ago I went to one of the first conferences in London to focus on social networking. This was not a get-together of early-adopters but rather of businesses eager to get into this new field, and looking for venture capital. It soon became clear that the underlying motivation driving most of these companies was the collection of personal data. The creation of a vibrant community was seen important only as a means of achieving that goal.

At the time it wasn’t obvious how this data could be used, but it was clearly seen to be of value, and indeed in most cases the company’s major (if not only) asset. Now we are beginning to see just how big this business is. Facebook became worth $50 billion because 500 million people gave it rights to an uprecedented amount of personal data. Right now the company may not know what to do with it all, but when it works that out, $50 billion could well turn out to be on the conservative side.

So Big Brother is not the State but the private corporation, and their goal is not to suppress us but to manipulate our needs and desires. However what these companies must realise is that their business model is based on trust. Most of us are happy to hand over personal information if it brings us useful new services, however we do so on the understanding that these companies will not only protect our data, but also let us know in a clear and timely fashion what they are doing with it.

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