Reality can be improved

This is sooo cool. People at made a special augmented reality browser, called Layar. What is does is that is show you digital reality over the physical reality in the screen of your phone. For example you point you phone at a house and over the camera picture it is shown if it is for sale and what is the price. Look below.

All kinds of interesting applications can be made with this. In a project in the Amsterdam Living Lab we are piloting an application like this to find out how people will use such a service, especially when they are able to leave digital information behind that others can see with their phone. It may be that we will use the Layar technology instead of the home grown one. Of course a phone with and a GPS and a compass is needed like the Google phone or the latest iPhone 3gs.

Structured or unstructured


Regarding privacy a lot of fuss is often made about the information that the government collects about this. And I must say the government collects a lot.
An interesting case recently was with two criminals in the Netherlands. After stealing 21 cars they have been apprehended. The police stores every license plate in a database of every care that drives on the highway at Zwolle. It turned out that each time a stolen car drove by the same car was just behind it. This is the first time that the judge has to decide if this large database of car movements in the Netherlands can be legally used to search for clues.
As for the storage of personal information we can distinguish three domains who has access to the information: the government, (networks of) companies and the Internet.
As for the Government I am not that worried. I do believe that we have a strong democracy that will correct itself when information is misused too often. Of course that government may change. However, when it changes the government would start to implement a lot more means to spy on us anyway. As long as the use of the information is transparent I won’t lose much sleep over it.
As for companies it starts to become more complex. Banks, Supermarkets, web-stores, Google and others collect huge amounts of data. When companies combine this information it makes you feel digitally naked. Sometimes this is information that is collected without the person knowing that it is collected.
The website had collected the IP addresses of people that signed a petition with false names after a post at another website, that asked people to invalidate the petition. These IP addresses where than supplied to other websites in order to block the people behind it. The CBP has taken action in this case.
There are rules to what kind of information can be combined but it is often a shady area. In the example above it became transparent but especially in commercial environments it will often be hidden. The risks are significant. Much of this information in the hands of insurance companies will lead to a risk selection that is, from a societal point of view, not what we want. The acquisition of hospitals by insurance companies is a dangerous move in this respect.
In this case we are talking about information collected by (fairly large) companies. And companies can be found and are subject to regulations. This means that with a good legal framework it is a subject that can be controlled to a large extent.
As for Internet things are getting messy. The Internet is more and more used by people as the context to interpret information. If someone applies for a job he or she is googled. If a social worker is looking into a case it is not only the “kinddossier” that they look at but also hyves is checked. Internet has become the context in which official information is interpreted. And context information may be more important than the official information…
Problem which information on the Internet is that it is much harder to control in presence and in use. You can not stop a company from using the information on a potential pregrancy of a candidate that they have found. And you often can not have information removed that you do not like. And sometimes people leave information on websites that is plain false in order to harm someone.
People should become much more aware how much information can be found on them. Tinkebell recently published a book with all the hate-mail she got combined with personal information of the people that had send this e-mail. The people sending the hate-mail had the idea that they could send their messages in anonymity. Of 30% of the hate-mail she has received she could find extensive personal information on the net and has published this personal information together with hate-mail. I think a brilliant action.
We can not stop the amount of personal information on the Net. It is not just the information you publish yourself but also information others publish about you. What we need is some sort of digital mirror that shows us how the world sees us through the eyes of the Internet. Just like the mirror that hangs in you hallway and where you check your physical representation before going into the world. And like how we use clothes to create an image to the outside world we will pro-actively plant information on the net to create the image we want.
Have you already checked you profile?

"Secret" service, now on Facebook!

sirjohnA small row in the UK because the wife of the new head of MI6 has placed pictures of her family including her husband on Facebook including information on the place where they live, where they go on holiday and other information. I think this is a good example of how more and more people are used to publicising information on themselves that they would not have thought about publicising some years ago.
Reaction of the foreign secretary: ‘It is not a state secret that he wears Speedo swimming trunks. Let’s grow up.’
Of course he is right on the swimming trunks. I omitted that picture not of secrecy but of bad taste … However this is an example how social networking is becoming part of our everyday existence and that even the family of the head of MI6 do not realize the width of the audiences like Facebook has.

We know what you did last summer

Some time ago I wrote about the dangers of developments like child dossiers used by governments. One of the major risks is that people that will use this information use it without knowledge of the context when the information was stored. Information without context is hard to interpret leaves a lot of room for personal biases.
The Rathenau project I am doing deals with how the information anyone can find on the Internet will more and more become the context from which much of the official information in databases like Electronic Patient Files, Child Dossier, Civil Administration and others will be interpreted. This I showed also in the case on the social services. And many will recognize how they are using information found on the Internet as the context of the CV of a job applicant.
In relation to the social services we can debate whether this is a bad thing. After all the government also used special “kliklijnen” where people can complain anonymous about the black market activities of their neighbour on welfare. Not to say I approve of this method but it is legal.
But what about a health insurance company that starts to search the Internet for information on their patients. By law the insurance company has no access to the patients medical record. Are they allowed to factor in the information they can find on the Internet? I would say not but how can we prevent them from using this information. We can not prevent them from finding this information…
An example someone from CBP gave made me think. Say a woman just found out she is pregnant and has discussed morning sickness on a forum on the Internet. A week later she has a job interview where the HR manager has found this information. Even though as a society we have accepted that a potential pregnancy should not be discussed in job interviews we can not prevent people from using this information when they accidentally find it. And due to all kinds of mechanism I will discuss soon it is getting harder to stay anonymous on the Internet.
We can and should not control the information that is on the Internet. But on the one hand we will have to develop laws that govern what institutions are allowed to use and on the other hand we ourselves will have to deal with the fact that much personal information can be found.
Unless of course your name is Jan Jansen…


090319beauGoogle is at the moment making pictures of all the citys in the Netherlands for their streetview service. Besides this being a usefull service (what does that area look like) it leads to some bizarre situations:

  • In some cases Google has by accident photographed famous dutch people. Even though the faces are blurred in most cases the people are still clearly recognisable. This may of course be a problem since it makes the place where someone lives visible for everyone.
  • In one case a crime is even solved. Some time ago a person was mugged in the street, just a the moment the Google streetview care was driving by taking pictures. The criminals got away. After some months the person looked at the streetview pictures of that location and to his surprise he could see himself and the boys that mugged him running away. He called the police, they called Google for the un-blurred pictures and got them. The criminals are apprehended.

Streetview now even has it’s own site where remarkable pictures can be found. Two people walking hand in hand on four separate pictures and others, famous people, people driving through red and others. The sheer amount of pictures that are being taking leads to all kinds of new questions how we should deal with it in relation to privacy.
How do you feel about this trend, do you see it as an invasion of your privacy?