Turning inner space into outer space

September 29, 2011

The smartest thing about smart meters is the name

What’s so smart about “smart” meters? They are, of course, capable of monitoring electricity usage in ways that old-style meters can’t. But what’s really smart about them is the name with a positive spin — what a great way to help ease in new technology that some people find scary.

We’ve had a couple more examples of this in the past few days from Facebook and Amazon.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg has announced two new features that a) cover your life from the time you were born, and b) track your every move on the web and broadcast it to your friends. He didn’t use those words — people would have freaked out. Instead, the first feature is called Timeline and the second is called Open Graph — much more comforting.

This article in Time magazine does a good job of explaining it, but essentially Timeline allows you to preserve every significant moment in your life from the moment of your birth. In some ways it sounds wonderful to be able to share a digital scrapbook of your life. But just remember that if you aren’t careful with your privacy settings, you’re also sharing this information with advertisers who are salivating at the thought of aggregating it.

Then there’s Open Graph. What could be bad about something that is “open”? This technology allows owners of apps and services to make it so that everything you view or click on is automatically shared. It will, for example, tell friends what music you’re listening to, even if it turns out you didn’t really like it and wish they didn’t know. People will have to opt in to this form of sharing, but can I see many people forgetting they’ve made this commitment and ultimately embarrassing themselves. Meanwhile, advertisers will be busy aggregating even more information about our lives.

You might argue that you have a mundane life, and there is no real reason to care if anyone knows what you are doing. But supposing you gave a donation to a political party, or wrote a note of support for a group of activists. There might be people other than advertisers interested in this type of information. For anyone whose life consists of something more than mindless consumption, there are some real concerns here.

But it gets even worse with the recent announcement by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos of the new Kindle tablets. These tablets use a new web browsing technology called Silk. So what’s not to love about something called “silk”? The up side is that this technology places much of the load of rendering web pages on Amazon’s servers, and thus makes it much faster. The down side is that Amazon’s servers will be able to record every single thing you do while using it. Everything.

Of course, Amazon gives the same old song and dance about this information being aggregated so we shouldn’t be worried about our individual privacy. But even with the best of intentions, can we really trust that some dishonest person either working for Amazon or hacking in from outside won’t start snooping around? An article at ZDNet puts it this way: “Silk looks to be very fast and about as private as a bathroom stall without a door.”

Yes, Amazon will allow you to opt for an “off-cloud” mode, but you’ll do it at the expense of fast browsing. And because it’s an opt-out, many people won’t think of it.