CookieLaw Blog September 17, 2013

The Age of Context

I had the privilege recently to be sent an advance review copy of a new book – The Age of Context: Mobile, Sensors, Data and the Future of Privacy by Robert Scoble and Shel Israel.

It is a fascinating insight into where are headed with our increasing connectedness, and the issues this throws up for privacy, and I would certainly urge anyone interested in this field to read it – especially those legislators in the EU.

However, this is not in any way a doom mongering take on the future of technology.  On the contrary it is overwhelmingly about the potential benefits that smarter, always on, data gathering tech can deliver to people.

They look at the newest health monitoring gadgets that are already helping users to get fitter and live healthier lives. They explore the ideas around ‘Personal Contextual Assistants’ – apps that aim to connect all your data, learn as much as they can about you, so that can make your life more convenient.  There is a whole chapter dedicated to Google Glass, as a kind of archetype for the next wave of wearable technology.

Yet they also look at the mistakes these technologies can make, the erroneous connections and assumptions that can lead to ‘privacy gaffes’ – both light-hearted and serious.

The authors say that they never expected to talk about privacy so much when they started researching the book, but that everything kept coming back to it – and in the end they produced a whole chapter dedicated to privacy issues.

There are no easy answers, as they particularly note at one point:  “Trying to stop your personal information from being collected and used at this point is tantamount to trying to stop a tsunami by standing on a beach and punching it.”

Yet they support the need to address the issue of privacy, and that all players – technology companies, users and legislators will need to engage on the issue.  Ultimately they echo principles that we have long supported – transparency from developers, balance in the law, and control and ownership of data by end users.

One of the ideas I often come back to is privacy as competitive advantage.  The idea that where consumers are increasingly aware of how their data can be used to another person’s advantage, other things being equal, they will seek services that give them the best control over their privacy.  I was very pleased to find that Scoble and Israel appear to share this view.

The book deserves to be widely read. It is both a thoughtful and accessible peek into the near future not just of technology, but of the societies increasingly shaped by it.  It will be especially useful for anyone interested in the privacy challenges we will all be faced with, and need a solution for, in the next few years.

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