You've agreed to share your personal information with virtually everyone -- you just don't know it.
We now live in what used to be called the "information age."
We carry in our pockets, brief cases and hold on our desks machines that can conjure up information from thousands of Libraries of Congresses in an instant.
But this "information age" has become an age of ignorance. We can know every detail about any subject on Earth, but know nothing about basic facts like who has access to our own personal data.
What Did You Agree To?
The technology industry has made liars out of us. Every new app -- or update to apps -- every new service we try and every new device we buy involves us saying that we've read and understand the Terms of Service (ToS) or End User Licensing Agreement (EULA).
But we haven’t. And we don’t.
(I conducted a poll on my Google+ page, and at post time, 451 responded that they click "Yes" or "Agree" to such contracts when they either don't read or understand them. Only 14 said they only agree if they have both read and understood the terms.)
There are all kinds of problems with this inconvenient truth, but the biggest is that users don't know what they agreed to.
Did you agree to let a company harvest your personal data and sell it to anyone with the cash to buy it? Did you agree to let them track your location? Contact your loved ones? Use your images and words in advertisements?
Buried in the blather are details about how the company intends to monitor, collect and store your personal information, as well as sell and share it. It's easy to blame the user. But the truth is that most of these contracts are not designed for end-user understanding, but for corporate ass-saving should the company's activities later be challenged in court or Congressional hearing.
What Services Are Sharing Your Social Content?
When I post things on Google+, they're automatically posted also on Twitter. Somebody recently asked me which service I use to do this, and I couldn't remember.
I had tried more than a dozen services several months ago, and didn't recall which I had settled on. (I later realized that Twitter helpfully labels the source for third-party app posted content in each tweet’s data.)
Come to think of it, I connected various services together over the past few years, including Linkedin, Bebo, Plaxo, Brightkite, Friendfeed, Jaiku and even MySpace. What did I connect? Am I still sharing personal information on these services through these connections. Do these services even still exist?
I discovered recently that many people have this problem. Active users tend to try things. We create these connections. But when we're distracted by the newest shiny object, we wander away and tend to leave behind a trail of information linkages that continue to “share” things long after we’ve forgotten about them.
Who Knows Your Location?
The wireless carrier that enables you to watch dumb cat videos on your smart phone knows where you are at all times.
Your phone collects location data constantly. It triangulates cell towers, checks its location via GPS, and uses other methods to know where the phone is -- where you are -- on the surface of the planet.
Who has access to data about your location? The carrier definitely does. But does the handset maker? The app makers? The government? Your boss? Does the carrier sell specific or aggregated location data to other companies?
If you know the answer to these questions, congratula-tions: You are the 1%. The vast majority of users don't have any idea.
What’s Going On Inside My Computer?
The first three decades of the personal computing revolution involved, in one form or another, significant knowledge about what was going on inside the box.
In the 1970s, to use a PC was to program it. In the 1980s, using a PC required serious file and disk management. And in the 1990s, everyone was obsessed with system maintenance and optimization.
During these years, the average user was required to know the location of personal data files, and make deci-sions about whether this DLL or that .INI file was in the right place and doing its job. People de-fragged their hard drives and optimized the size and locations of their swap files. We were all intimately involved in the nitty gritty details of what was happening inside our PCs.
Apple ushered in the new era of the information appliance when it shipped the iPad last year. Or maybe they did so when they launched the iPhone. Either way, the era has begun. All computers, whether mobile or otherwise, are headed in the direction of becoming black boxes, where the user doesn't know or care what's going on inside.
This was inevitable with growing complexity. The same thing happened to cars.
The iPad is a joy to use. But the reason it's a joy is that we get to be ignorant about what's happening inside. You just created a long document using Apple Pages. How big is the file? Where is it in the file system, or on the disk? What's the file name?
The answer to these questions is: Don't worry your pretty little head about it. It's all taken care of.
Where Is This Cloud, Anyway?
Cloud computing is the only computing paradigm that I'm aware of that's actually named after a symbol for ignorance.
The "cloud" in cloud computing comes from the world of network diagramming. Engineers have used a drawing of a puffy white cloud for decades to depict any complex networking system where the details are not important to the diagram. The cloud symbol represents the absence of knowledge or detail.
Today, "the cloud" has become a buzzword, but it still symbolizes ignorance. The Wikipedia defines cloud com-puting as "a marketing term for technologies that provide computation, software, data access, and storage services that do not require end-user knowledge of the physical location and configuration of the system that delivers the services."
Consumer cloud computing comes in many variants, and is offered by major companies like Google, Amazon and Apple. The "friendlier" cloud computing is supposed to be, the more ignorance is required of the user. Apple's iCloud appears to be completely mysterious, with many advanced users expressing confusion about even the basics of how it works, which user data files are involved and why.
The Ignorance Opportunity
What we need now is for the industry to recognize that user ignorance is an important problem to be solved -- or, at least, mitigated.
We need shorter, clearer and less rapacious ToS and EULA agreements, so that people actually read them.
We need reminders, and very clear approvals for things companies are doing with our personal information that might be important to the user. Just getting an OK from the user at the beginning of use isn’t enough.
We need more services like Google's Privacy Dashboard, in which everything each company knows about you is specified in its entirety.
I also believe that the problem of user ignorance is a big opportunity for application and web services developers. Gives us apps and tools that dig into the products and services we use and draw out important information. Tell us who we're sharing with, what data is being collected and what's going on with our information.
In this column I've specified an unnervingly large number of "unknowns" that didn't use to exist in our lives.
The age of ignorance isn’t the result of some nefarious plot (for the most part). It’s simply the result of rampant complexity.
There's no question that the world has gotten better, at least as far as consumer and information technology is concerned. New computing paradigms like tablet comput-ers and cloud computing can make life easier, and help us deal with ever-growing complexity.
Technology got us into this mess. And technology can get us out. How, exactly? I have no idea.