Image: Snapchat

One of the central conceits of the Internet is that once something is published, it is out in public forever. This is so basic an idea that sitcom characters were joking about back in 1996 (1996!). But in the post-Snowden age, there is greater interest in being able to limit the data shared on the Internet, or to be able to scrub your data later. New laws and a flurry of new products could help make Internet content more ephemeral.

In California, Governor Jerry Brown just signed a bill that would give users under the age of 18 the ability to purge their social media profiles from the Internet. This may be welcome news for kids who want to have fun, but also want to get into good schools, get good jobs, etc.  A report from May 2013 found that 1 in 10 young job applicants missed out on a job due to a social media post and that nearly one-third of Millennials regret some social media posts.

But an alternative to scrubbing data from the Internet is limiting its lifespan. This is the premise behind mobile photo-messaging app Snapchat, which allows user to set a lifespan for how long a message will last in the recipient’s in-box before self-deleting. The service has become wildly popular, with users sending 350 million messages a day. The ‘self-destruct’ feature means that users can send pictures that might be questionable, with less chance they will become permanent.

Akin to Snapchat is a web-based picture service called BlinkLink, which limits the number of people who could view your photo. But whereas Snapchat sets a time limit, BlinkLink sets a viewer limit. Users can set the number of viewers who can see the picture and once the click-through is reached, the photo disappears.

While privacy and control are prime functions of Snapchat, BlinkLink’s limited viewership (which also offers privacy) reveals a second benefit of these kinds of apps: Exclusivity. By publicizing content on Snapchat or BlinkLink and then limiting access to it, via time or number of viewers, users can create exclusivity and demand for their content. Brands looking to generate buzz for new products could do so through the ‘limited-time-only’ features of these apps.

Of course, if none of these laws or apps are enough for you, you could use lasers to create a ‘time hole’ and effectively erase your data from time.

The crowdsourced surveillance that unfolded in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Boston is no surprise to futurists. Indeed, it sounded rather familiar. Poking around, I found this scenario vignette in a paper I wrote for the Proteus security conference five years ago:

They thought they had the assassin: he was at the rally when it happened, affiliated with a radical pro-male group in his homeland; he had ranted violently against Ms. Harstad’s UN activities on his blog, and he had a traditional blowgun like that used to deliver the tiny dart. Crime scene investigators ran the coordinates against public images and video: there were approximately 15,000 still images and 300 videos of the square that day. After a moment’s collation, the computer delivered the three-dimensional reconstruction of the hours around the speech. The team zoomed in on where Mwazi claimed he had been standing. There he was. They watched him from the front and each side, and it became clear: he never raised his hands near his mouth, and never used a visible comm device or even seemed to say anything. Unless they could hold a man for scowling, they were going to have to let him walk.

As I allude to in the vignette, it will be possible to automate many of the processes now being done laboriously and partly by hand. Experiments have shown that public photos can be used to reconstruct 3D images of places.

Meanwhile, the spontaneous crowdsourcing around the Boston case has shown uneven results. The most prominent effort, on Reddit, failed to spot the real suspects, while singling out many uninvolved people, and crowd-based efforts also seem to have misidentified an innocent missing person as a potential terrorist. On the other hand, a bystander did discover a high-quality image of a suspect in one of his snapshots.


Image: micahb37 (Flickr)

A report last week about the continued decline of the cost of genetic sequencing got me thinking about genetic privacy.

The fabled “$1,000 genome” is coming into view, the pricepoint at which full sequencing can begin to be part of routine medical care in the developed world.

That pricepoint also opens sequencing up for non-medical purposes; someone could do so to find out about a partner, employee, or celebrity, as long as you could obtain some kind of genetic sample.

Celebrities are highly plausible targets; an entire industry seeks out and distributes every little detail about their lives, and genetics promises insight into medical conditions, behavioral quirks, and propensities–all fertile ground for celebrity gossip. Of course, a lot of the information genetics could currently produce will be vague and pseudoscientific, but that hardly matters  for this purpose.

This raises several questions:

  • Is it illegal to have someone else’s genome sequenced?
  • What happens if one has it done in another jurisdiction, as such sequencing will soon be possible in many places with lax enforcement?
  • What are the penalties, given that candid celebrity photos can earn five and six figures?

In the future, I suspect that actress Scarlett Johannson might be more leery of selling a used tissue for only $5,300.


It is only a matter of time before many people will be wearing always-on streaming video cameras when they are out on the street. They may do this for a variety of reasons, including self-quantification, but an immediate application will be personal security: it would be riskier to mug or assault someone if you may be filmed, live, while doing so.

Because such devices would be an effective deterrent to crime only if obvious, people may advertise that they are wearing them with a highly visible badge or light.

This could create a secondary effect. Some anticrime technologies, such as LoJack for cars, reduce crime by making it easier to catch criminals. But others merely divert it elsewhere; this is said to be case with anti-burglary systems. When criminals see the “protected by” signs in the yard, they are likely to simply move on to a house that is not protected. Muggers might make a similar decision, avoiding the video-protected.

In areas where crime worries people, this could drive rapid adoption of what might otherwise be a niche technology.


Image courtesy Ha-Wee (Flickr)

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