TOC From dust to data Your Turn

December 4, 2007

As a way to protect individuals' data rights, I recently advised the FTC to force data trackers into the open (1). My solution has received a welcome fillip from the recent travails of Facebook, as reported by Louise Story and Brad Stone (*). Facebook has taken to broadcast a user's purchases on participating sites to all this user's friends. As it highlights rather than hides its tracking, Beacon lives up to its name. The result of so much visibility is, as I expected, to stir users out of their apathy. Chad Stoller, an adman, is quoted deriding angry users as hypocrites. Call Facebook users naive perhaps but leave hypocrisy for those who write so-called privacy policies, the ever changing fig leaves of naked greed.

In the Star Trek movie Generations, the android Data gets fitted with an emotion chip and promptly displays all too human foibles (2). Meanwhile Our Information Age runs amock and relentlessly turns us into data.

For those of my readers who have not yet done so, I recommend reading John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium Vitae (3). Look beyond its pastoral focus on the burning issues of beginning and end of life. It issues a broader warning against reducing "human life to the level of simple 'biological material' to be freely disposed of". If "life itself becomes a mere 'thing'", can Man (4) be more than a bill of body parts inventory?

To explore the consequences of such dehumanization, why not indulge in Michael Crichton's latest techno-thriller, Next (5)? Look beyond the genre as science mixed with money propels the plot through ever more evil twists. Its message is clear. Society harbors powerful trends to mine Man and subject the underlying biological material to the full force of adversarial court proceedings, fueled by the fertile imagination of lawyers who feast from dubious ownership claims.

But if life is reduced to its material expression, is there a clear border between biological material and data? Is DNA more than a complicated data string? Is a full ID theft any different from stealing a skin cell sample (6)? Both holds the promise to clone the original and, for now, the virtual clone is still the more real threat.

As Man turns into data, the fight for eprivacy, the right of individuals to their own data, should be seen as a critical battle in a much larger war. As quoted by Louise Story and Brad Stone, Chamath Palihapitiya, a vice president at Facebook who deserves to star in Michael Crichton's next novel, counts on user habituation to impose more features: "after a while, they fall in love with them". Whether or not they promote privacy invasion is not his concern. What should, by right, be mine is for him to mine.

Facebook probably hopes you will soon find normal to share your DNA with your friends. "Eugene: is sending a story to your profile". "Peter: your friend Eugene added a DNA kit to their queue on". Message from Milkem Inc. "Hello Peter, do you know your lack of the lactose tolerance gene might cramp your career prospects?". "Dear Lucy, my boss insisted I befriend him on Facebook and now has put me in a small enclosed office at the end of the hallway. What should I do? Anxiously yours. Peter" (7).

Sophomoric perhaps, as befits Facebook fans but, seriously, personalized advertising has explosive growth potential. "Hello Philippe, smoking is the way real men like you show their stuff. Protected by healthy genes, ignore the Surgeon General's generic warnings and enjoy the great outdoors!"

May I remind the reader that it is possible to grow a genetically re-engineered Facebook by splicing ePrio's technology into its business model?

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) .. Facebook Retreats on Online Tracking, by Louise Story and Brad Stone (New York Times) - November 30, 2007
  • (1) see the comments to the Federal Trade Commission I sent in response to its public inquiry on "Ehavioral Advertising"
  • (2) see Star Trek Generations, 1994
  • (3) see Evangelium Vitae, by John Paul II - 1995
  • (4) in this fillip "Man" stands of course for all of human kind. While unambiguous, concise and totally correct, latin is no longer our lingua franca.
  • (5) see Next, by Michael Crichton (Harper Collins) - 2006, 431 pages
    Notice at the beginning the traditional warning "no part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner without written permission".
    I wonder if the author thought about the irony of it all. Shouldn't we claim copyrights to our own profiles and our own cells?
  • (6) see Induced pluripotent stem cells derived from epithelial cells in wikipedia
  • (7) see 10/9/07 fillip, My boss wants to be my friend on Facebook, by Lucy Kellaway (Financial Times) - October 3, 2007
    Lucy Kellaway writes an "agony aunt" column in the Financial Times about the angst of office life,
    see The agony and the everyday, by Lucie Kellaway (Financial Times) - October 26, 2007
December 2007
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