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The Death Knell of Privacy

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The Kansas City.com (free subscription required or sign in via my pals at the cheeky Bug Me Not) reports about a new service from Sprint, which got me thinking.

The Sprint Business Mobility Framework is a service that tracks employees’ movements. It sends out alerts to management when they stray outside the designated Geofence and reports a “breadcrumb” trail of where they have been. Finally, it can tell managers which employee is nearest to a given point in the event of a service need – think the nearest taxi or plumber.

I’ve written about these kind of employee tracking devices before and especially about the insensitivity of the companies promoting such schemes. Their CEOs frequently make really funny quips about electric shock therapy and just manage to stop chortling about death squads to round up straying employees.

I’ve also pointed out that studies show that when employees are trusted, productivity increases. The opposite is true; when you patently don’t trust people and use this kind of technology, you’re encouraging them to try to beat the system. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that these systems track devices, not people. So just as we used to clock mates in and clock them out, in the old days of punching bits of card, some employees will find themselves sitting in a warehouse surrounded by colleagues’ mobile phones on Friday afternoons.

If your company is considering one of these services, you have a real personnel issue at the heart of the company and there’s nothing for it – your Board of Directors must resign at once. Anyone who confuses treating a symptom, rather than the disease itself, simply lacks judgment.

In the UK, privacy died years ago as we happily allowed “them” to install CCTV cameras everywhere. So much so, that the average citizen living or working in an urban area gets filmed 70 or so times a day. This has led, among other things, to a rise in hoodies and base ball caps as fashion items among kids, as they seek to avoid identification.

Sure, wearing a hoodie doesn’t make you a criminal. But just as low slung jeans was a homage to the hard homies who had gone to jail (and had their belts taken away) in urban America, hoodies nod at the hard kids who wear them with crime in mind.

And now Bliar wants everyone to carry ID cards. A truly unbelievable waste of public money, as what all these things have in common is that the crims always find a way ’round them and ordinary citizens are inconvenienced.

Next, we have the camera phone in every pocket – and soon it’ll be a video phone. This means that any crime or private moment has a very good chance of being filmed. You snog your girlfriend with a bit of passion, to find a couple of kids are filming you. Or they preempt the action with a little Happy Slapping.

Sting recently had to abandon a skiing holiday, as he was fed up with the crowd of amateur paparazzi following him around.

Russell Beattie was also violated this week, privacy-wise. While he was trying to activate his Boost mobile phone account, he was asked such intrusions as the age of his father and brother – not information he had ever given them.

The other area that springs to mind in this little rant is reputation. One of the next big boom areas (just my opinion) is online reputation management systems. These will collate data on all of us, specifically for prospective employees. Not only will resume/CV accuracy be monitored factually, colleagues’ and managers’ opinions might be collected, leaving no room to hide.

While you might reasonably object to having your name on these databases and possibly even succeed in requesting removal, this may be like being asked to be removed from the employment market altogether. After all, if you ask for removal, you must, de facto, have something to hide.

It’s bad enough having your credit constantly monitored if the company has made a mistake and downgrades you. Apparently, it can take months to get it corrected. But suppose effectively your “right to work” gets accidentally compromised or deliberately so, by a colleague with a grudge?

Finally, while defenders of these systems say that “law abiding citizens have nothing to hide,” this is only relatively true in a democracy. If we ever see a return to some of the regimes (of the left or right) that dominated Europe last century, such exhaustive information on every citizen would make Big Brother look optimistic. And if you automatically think that Big Brother is the TV programme, go and read the complete works of Orwell now and sit at the back of the class until you’ve finished.

While we may think a return to those politics are impossible these days, I don’t think we can be complacent. These schemes all make the rise of such regimes much, much easier than in the past. “Information is power” and all that.

I started this rant about LBS tracking for employees (and let’s throw in child tracking as well – evil trade that it is). But please don’t think I’m against LBS generally – I think it’ll add huge value to our lives and enrich society in many ways. But like all technology, there are good and bad uses for it.

Very often it’s the obvious uses that are inappropriate, while the good ones take a little more thought and crafting to emerge.

Let’s pray that the good uses win out in the end.

Via W2 Forum (subscription required)

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  • Nancy

    Where did you get the CEO names for these trash factories? I keep telling them to lay off and they don’t, even tho I update my ‘no junk mail’ registration with the Direct Mail consortium every 6-7 months! This all started with the goddamned marketers. I hope all marketing and advertising people spend eternity in hell, I really do. I’ve written and nagged and screamed at my representatives to get some laws on the books whereby no damned company can collect, sell, rent, hold, or otherwise be in possession of our private information without our express written consents, but of course since they’re all in the pay of the industry lobbiests, nothing of the sort is ever going to happen, even in the aftermath of these big data ripoffs recently. This is a subject that drives me into apoplexy every time. I shouldn’t have logged on to this one….

  • Yup. My credit and buying habits seemed to make me irrestible to people that sent junk mail. All of a sudden I was getting deluged with catalogs, including a number of companies whose mailing lists I firmly asked to be taken off (and had been). I also got stuff advertising fur coats and investments (someone was deluded). And they are no longer taking you off or keeping you off the lists if you request to be. They somehow all make “mistakes” but if you write to the CEO, it happens instantly, not in the two months they say it takes. I did that a while ago and finally got my mail box cleared. I now have to write to the CEO of each company. That’s ridicilous, and the funny thing is I would have been happy to have some catalogs in they were reasonable about it. I billed some of these companies for their insolence.

  • James Ackerson

    Its going to cause a great deal more “counter” operations and technical applications to become common place in the black market, such as interference or “white noise” generators that people carry to cause CCTV cameras and wireless functions to become unable to record your movements, ID scanning modules designed to do a “binary recovery” of a persons National ID’s RFID tag, people making envelopes that block transmissions of data to any repeater from their equipment & Plastic cards they carry, cell phones having the particular frequencies for GPS being blocked and or physically disabled in the cell phone itself (just to name a few)

    When “Big Brother” attempts to squeeze much harder, the results are going to be counter productive to the people controlling the system, its a shame to see that history has not been learned that when you try to control more then yourself, you only end up either dead or alone and completely forgotten about..


  • bhw

    She also always seems to know where I am and who I’ve been talking to.

  • On the other hand, even though you can work half-days (and you get to pick which 12 hours to work, too…), when you work for yourself, you have a real jerk for a boss!

  • bhw

    Thanks, DrPat!

  • Free ASINs: 0874778379 (Secrets of Self-Employment [Working from Home]); 0142002488 (I Don’t Know What I Want, But This Iin’t It); 0314232354 (Employment Law in a Nutshell)

  • bhw

    Reason 10,001 to freelance and work from home.

  • Russell Buckley writes: But just as low slung jeans was a homage to the hard homies who had gone to jail (and had their belts taken away) in urban America

    Reply: Heck, I live in America and I didn’t know that arcane bit of urban lore. Thanks, Russell! I find that, strangely, fascinating.



  • The whole thing gives me the creeps.