Comment to Peter Fleischer’s blog post on “Exhibitionism, or Self-Expression?”

I’m using my blog to comment on Peter’s post as it appears that my response below was longer than what his blogging platform (Blogger) could accept.  Really, Google sets comment limits? 😉

First off, I highly recommend Peter’s blog if you are into privacy issues.  It’s nice to see that despite so much negative hype about Google’s general attitudes towards privacy, there are real people working there and they have concerns and think about these issues like every one else.

In reading this post’s comments on sharing, it brought me back to a debate last evening with a dear friend about this very issue.  However, where he debated in effect a similar position to Peter’s (be comfortable about what you’re going to post), he was viewing it as an issue for his children (currently 9 and 13 yrs old).  He raised the typical and oft repeated anecdotes about college admissions doing online searches on candidates and employers making hiring decisions, and how destructive negative information could impact his children’s future success.

My contention however is that the amount of data being put out there will soon become prohibitive for people to search against.  As Peter noted, first you have to determine if the data you are reviewing is about the candidate that you’re considering.  Then you have to determine the validity of the data and its source.

Collaborative filtering and network analysis tools and techniques are gaining ground in these areas, and are being applied to the selection process for various activities.  Of course, behavioral and interest-based ad targeting has been at the forefront of this (ie. Amazon’s “people who bought this also bought that”).  However, as you might be aware, when governments try to segment terrorists from non-terrorists (ie. “No Fly List”), they tend bring more and different data sets to bear.  For example, they might apply clustering around credit records, travel logs, transaction records, and other data sets in order to come up with something like, “people who bought this and flew to these places and have open balances on their loans are more likely to be terrorists”.

From the average citizen’s standpoint however, we don’t actually know what data is being combined and corolated nor what assumptions are being made to come up with this lens.  Now, if we go back to the university or employer examples, one can imagine a near future where employers (who are already making use of people’s credit records) and have access to too much data, start to combine avaialble data sets to determine whether an employment prospect is suitable for their company.  That employee won’t know the model against which they are being evaluated. 

Now in a world where kids will make mistakes, and mistakes won’t disappear, then one can argue that mistakes will be understood as part of what makes us human (call it being a “normal” person).  One could also argue that a college kid that screws up his credit while in college, learns a valuable lesson which may make her more vigilant in the future about paying bills on time.  Employers may begin to understand this and derive similar conclusions which they will build into their models.

Hence, those kids who worried about not having anything negative about themselves appear any where, might actually be the ones at a disadvantage.  But the problem is no one will really ever know.  Unless the models are made public (which is not likely unless the current laws change), the best we can do is live our lives in a way that is respectful to others and society in general, accept our mistakes, and keep living our lives.

In a world where transparency rules, then trying to be abnormally good makes one less human and hence less desirable.  It’s almost as though the lack of having made any mistakes brings suspicion on a person that they’re either gaming the system or likely to be more destructive in the future, though one can still imagine some less progressive companies deciding to eliminate candidates with any blemishes.  In other words, no different than the situation we have today.  This actually reminds me of a college friend who didn’t drink while we were in college, he got married right after graduation but within 5 years was divorced and an alcoholic.  Here he kept a natural impulse bottled up inside him and it cost him more dearly when he finally succumbed.

Sorry for the long response/comment, but I thought it worth sharing a position on how things might change/evolve in the future.


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