Living in the Modern Age of Always On Communication

Hide Me

Over a dozen years ago, I remember working as a product manager on softswitch services, excitedly talking to my manager about the development of “Find Me, Follow Me” service, a precursor to unified communications, that allowed users to define the contact paths of the various communications devices (the honorable and ancient home landline phone, work phone, cell phone, etc.) in order to make said user always reachable! My manager looked at me with a tired, plaintive face and said, “John, I don’t want a “Find Me, Follow Me” service offering, I want a “Hide Me” service!

When I get in the car in the morning, my iPhone automatically predicts the driving time to the office (thank you Google Maps!) regardless of the fact I am going to the dentist before work that morning. While I am searching the internet for the definition of an obscure cable protocol, the sidebar on my browser reminds me of my last search for a birthday present for my wife (no, I don’t take a woman’s size 4 in jeans but thank you anyways). I know that Google is reading, or rather, scanning my personal email, helping to form a more perfect profile of me, for untold Amazonian suggestions and targeted ads (despite these undeniable benefits I’ll pass on the Garcinia Cambogia).

My Millennials, that is my adult children, have told me to “chill”, and move to acceptance of pervasive technology. I can only assume they were never forced to read 1984 in high school or didn’t really comprehend the messages from George Orwell. These Millennials have no fear. They have grown up in the smartphone world, where everything is practically at your fingers and thumbs, unconcerned that their every click is being recorded, stored, and available for analysis and sale. I would still argue to them that in the name of convenience we too easily give up our right privacy in communications.

While I’m not ready to join the hermits in West Virginia (highlighted by Werner Herzog in his documentary on the Internet, “Lo and Behold”) who claim to be made physically ill by modern technology and hide in the signal-free zone of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s Green Bank Telescope, I am feeling overly exposed by the intrusiveness of technology. But I can’t give up this wondrous technology either.

Yes, this technology is a double-edged sword; it takes information from us but it gives too! I love the convenience of finding the answer to virtually any question that pops up, getting driving directions rather than printing out directions or reading a map, and of course texting allows me to stay in touch with my Millennials.

Ultimately, what I am pleading for is a mixture of discretion and good judgment from the service providers (including web services and over-the-top (OTT) services) whose network and services I/we consume in our everyday lives. For over 100 years network operations and engineers had the capability to eaves drop on our conversations (a la the “butt set” plug-in phone line in the central office) in order to hear the static or bad connection someone complained about or comply with a law enforcement surveillance action. Few would complain about network engineers observing a conversation to fix network problems.  But the ability to easily post files of personal conversations, photos, videos, instant messages on Facebook or other social media and cause ruinous exposure to individuals makes the nature of IP communications much different than the past.

Lest they invite more regulatory oversight and regulations service providers need to implement and maintain some sensible policies for protecting subscriber privacy. Using my communications information for service assurance and troubleshooting purposes, with proper safeguards in place for authorized network operations and engineering, should be allowed. Using my communications information for marketing and sales and business analysis activities should only be allowed on anonymized data or for those purposes that I have expressed recognition and permission. There will always be a gray area that can be exploited in which using free services comes with a price and that cost is your privacy!

Okay, enough on that issue. So tell me, iPhone, where can I buy that Fitbit for my daughter for Christmas?