Features

net.wars: Like, unlike

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 26 November 2010


Some years back, the essayist and former software engineer Ellen Ullman wrote about the tendency of computer systems to infect their owners. The particular infectious she covered in Close to the Machine: Technophilia and Its Discontents was databases. Time after time, she saw good, well-meaning people commission a database to help staff or clients, and then begin to use it to monitor those they originally intended to help. Why? Well, because they *can*.

Wendy M Grossman

I thought – and think – that Ullman was onto something important there, but that this facet of human nature is not limited to computers and databases. Stanley Milgram's 1961 experiments showed that humans under the influence of apparent authority will obey instructions to administer treatment that outside of such a framework they would consider abhorrent. This seems to me sufficient answer to Roger Ebert's comment that no TSA agent has yet refused to perform the "enhanced pat-down", even on a child.

It would almost be better if the people running the NHS Choices Web site had been infected with the surveillance bug because they would be simply wrong. Instead, the NHS is more complicatedly wrong: it has taken the weird decision that what we all want is to share with our Facebook friends the news that we have just looked at the page on gonorrhea. Or, given the well-documented privacy issues with Facebook's rapid colonization of the Web via the "Like" button, allow Facebook to track our every move whether we're logged in or not.

I can only think of two possibilities for the reasoning behind this. One is that NHS managers have little concept of the difference between their site, intended to provide patient information and guidance, and that of a media organization needing advertising to stay afloat. It's one of the truisms of new technologies that they infiltrate the workplace through the medium of people who already use them: email, instant messaging, latterly social networks. So maybe they think that because they love Facebook the rest of us must, too. My other thought is that NHS managers think this is what we want because their grandkids have insisted they get onto Facebook, where they now occupy their off-hours hitting the "like" button and poking each other and think this means they're modern.

There's the issue Tim Berners-Lee has raised, that Facebook and other walled gardens are dividing the Net up into incompatible silos. The much worse problem, at least for public services and we who must use them, is the insidiously spreading assumption that if a new technology is popular it must be used no matter what the context. The effect is about as compelling as a TSA agent offering you a lollipop after your pat-down.

Most likely, the decision to deploy the "Like" button started with the simple, human desire for feedback. At some point everyone who runs a Web site wonders what parts of the site get read the most…and then by whom…and then what else they read. It's obviously the right approach if you're a media organization trying to serve your readers better. It's a ludicrously mismatched approach if you're the NHS because your raison d'être is not to be popular but to provide the public with the services they need at the most vulnerable times in their lives. Your page on rare lymphomas is not less valuable or important just because it's accessed by fewer people than the pages on STDs, nor are you actually going to derive particularly useful medical research data from finding that people who read about lymphoma also often read pages on osteoporosis. But it’s easy, quick, and free to install Google Analytics or Facebook Like, and so people do it without thought.

Both of these incidents have also exposed once and for all the limited value of privacy policies. For one thing, a patient in distress is not going to take time out from bleeding to read the fine print ("when you visit pages on our site that display a Facebook Like button, Facebook will collect information about your visit") or check for open, logged-in browser windows. The NHS wants its sites to be trusted; but that means more than simply being medically accurate; it requires implementing confidentiality as well. The NHS's privacy policy is meaningless if you need to be a technical expert to exercise any choice. Similarly, who cares what the TSA's privacy policy says if the simple desire to spend Christmas with your family requires you to submit to whatever level of intimate inspection the agent on the ground that day feels like dishing out? What privacy policy makes up for being required to covered in urine spilled from your roughly handled urostomy bag? Milgram moments, both.

It's at this point that we need our politicians to act in our interests, because the thinking has to change at the top level.

Meantime, if you're traveling in the US this Christmas, the ACLU, and Edward Hasbrouck have handy guides to your rights. But pragmatically, if you do get patted down and really want to make your flight, it seems like your best policy is to lie back and think of the country of your choice.


Technorati tags:       

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).