Identity management: the future of privacy?

The nature of privacy of is changing.  This should come as no surprise to anyone, since the pace of technological change has rapidly outpaced our existing social and legal norms.

Some have argued that privacy is now a right reserved only for the rich. This story of the Seattle City Light company reinforces that view. According to the Seattle Times, City Light’s contract with to manage its image focused more on CEO Jorge Carrasco’s personal Google results than on the company itself.

Jorge Carrasco

Seattle City Light paid $17,500 for the contract, which focused on expunging a particular Seattle Weekly article from Google search results.

In particular, the records show, Carrasco was aggravated by a negative Seattle Weekly article from 2008 that kept popping up in search results about him. As late as last month, Carrasco and a top aide were exploring whether they could get the piece expunged from Google entirely.


That original story focused on Carrasco’s high-handed management style, and argued that he “decimated employee morale,” and revealed his nickname as “Jorge Fiasco.”

On the surface, this story appears to be about misuse of public money for personal use. But digger deeper, what it is really about is two things.

  1. Identity management is work: I have found repeatedly in my research on productivity that individuals are increasingly tasked with achieving, monitoring, and policing their online images. This kind of work is increasing in scope and effort.
  2. Privacy is for the rich: because reputation management is increasing in its scope and effort required, privacy itself is now a job. Obviously in this context, those with means can better marshal resources to protect their identities. Individuals without time, resources or skill to manage their identities will have a more difficult time.

In short, we are seeing productivity increasingly involving improving one’s image. Tools like Social Sweeper are already offering resume “cleaning” services — to those who can afford it.

When will more traditional productivity tools offer the same services? And how much will they cost?

The future of work: A designer’s reading list

Recently, I was asked to put together a list of reading for design students. These students are about to design something for emerging productivity needs. I looked through my academic database, I realized that much of what I’ve read is probably not appropriate for designers.

I mean, show me a designer who wants to read Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, and I’ll show you a budding sociologist!

So I changed tack. Below is the rough, popular reading list I came up with. These articles are no substitute for a robust reading of the research on work and technology, but it does reflect some of the major debates in the field.

It also is ripe for design solutions. There is tension. There are problems to solve. What problems would you solve, if you were designing for the future of work?

Understanding work in the 20th century: from hierarchy to what?

Stewart, Matthew. 2006. “The Management Myth: Most of management theory is inane, writes our correspondent, the founder of a consulting firm. If you want to success in business, don’t get an MBA. Study philosophy instead.” The Atlantic.

Work and technology: overworked and underproductive

Bogost, Ian. 2013. “Hyperemployment, or the exhausting work of the technology user.” The Atlantic.

Madden, Mary, and Sydney Jones. 2008. “Networked Workers”. Pew Internet and American Life: Washington DC.

Work and Home: blurring the boundaries

Meece, Mickey. “Who’s the boss? You or your gadget?” The New York Times.

Duxbury, Linda, and Rob Smart. 2011. “The ‘Myth of Separate Worlds’: An Exploration of How Mobile Technology Has Redefined Work-Life Balance.” In Creating Balance? International Perspectives on the Work-Life Integration of Professionals, edited by Stephan Kaiser, Max Josef Ringlstetter, Doris Ruth Eikhof, and Miguel Pina e Cunha, 269–284. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.

The Aging Workforce: time bomb or blessing?

Thompson, Derek. 2012. “Gray Nation: The very real economic dangers of an aging America.” The Atlantic.

The End of The Job: what happens when no one has a job?

Wishnia, Steve. 2012. “Temp Worker Nation: If you do get hired, it might not be for long.” Alternet.

The Economist. 2014. “The Onrushing Wave.”

MBO Partners. 2011. “The State of Independence in America”. Herndon, Virginia.

Why does technology present so many privacy problems?

Consider the following facts:

What is it with technology that makes these kinds of privacy breaches so common?

The importance of physical objects in privacy

We recruit physical objects to prop up our privacy. Doors, walls and curtains help us control access to information by obscuring the view into private space. Sometimes, objects are used to indicate a purely symbolic boundary, as in the case of a window. In public or shared spaces, we recruit physical objects to demarcate space we claim as private. Yoga class participants carry out this process by placing their mat on a carefully chosen spot. New arrivals to the class know that space is now “taken” by another student.

An office with walls and a door is less accessible than a mere desk – even when the office door is open. Fictional news reporter Les Nessman illustrated this by painting yellow lines on the carpet around his desk. Visitors to his “office” were asked to pantomime knocking on the “door.”

Figure 1: Les Nessman answering his “door”


The physical context of information tells us how private that information is intended to be. A piece of paper sitting in plain view suggests it is not private information. But that place that same piece of paper in a folder, and shut it in a drawer and the information is clearly intended to be private. The physical context itself connotes the nature of the information.

In the digital world, we no longer have these physical objects to help us. The digital context lacks the same fidelity of the physical world. Without physical objects to indicate the nature of privacy, digital objects typically are given metadata to indicate their private nature.

Metadata’s primary shortcoming is that it doesn’t relate the object to other objects, thereby robbing the user of a rich source of information. Imagine a photo placed in a frame and set on a piano. Imagine the same photo stuck on a corkboard, next to a mug shot. Imagine it again placed in a shoebox and tucked under a bed. Then imagine this photo posted on Facebook. The human mind quickly intuits the meaning of the object by means of comparing it to other, nearby objects. In the digital realm, objects are stripped of this context. Hashtags or metadata lack the richness of the physical context, and makes it that much more difficult to intuit the private nature of the object.

Ethnography and the importance of attachments and involvements

Elsewhere I have argued that ethnography is one of the best ways to understand how products relate to people and to the world. I argued that Heidegger’s concepts of “attachments” and “involvements” are what ethnographers should be looking for in the field. How does this product fit with other products? How does it fit with with people? You must understand a potential user’s system if you’re developing a product, and ethnography gives you a high-fidelity view into the user’s world.

This is one of the reasons we have so many privacy breaches; digital products were developed without understanding the user’s attachments and involvements, especially those relating to privacy. Sadly, entire business models have been built on users not realizing this fact, and over-sharing their information in a digital space. In the physical world, they might unconsciously recruit physical objects to communicate a high-fidelity privacy desire. We need more systems to integrate this desire, but with authentically digital options.




[1]       A. Westin, Privacy And Freedom, vol. 25, no. 1. New York: Athenum, 1967.

[2]       A. Cerra and C. James, Identity Shift: Where Identity Meets Technology in A Networked Age. Indianapolis: John Wiley & Sons, 2012.

[3]       M. Madejski, M. Johnson, and S. M. Bellovin, “The Failure of Online Social Network Privacy Settings,” New York, 2011.

[4]       B. Meeder, J. Tam, P. G. Kelley, and L. F. Cranor, “RT @ IWantPrivacy : Widespread Violation of Privacy Settings in the Twitter Social Network,” in Proceedings of the Web, Vol. 2, 2009.

[5]       T. a. Pempek, Y. a. Yermolayeva, and S. L. Calvert, “College students’ social networking experiences on Facebook,” J. Appl. Dev. Psychol., vol. 30, no. 3, pp. 227–238, May 2009.

[6]       E. Protalinksi, “13 Million US Facebook Users Don’t Change Privacy Settings,” ZDNet News2, 2012. [Online]. Available: [Accessed: 06-Dec-2013].

Mundane technology’s massive impact: the case of social network overload

We often have the mistaken impression that “breakthrough” technologies are the ones that will be the source of radical change. The first rocket. The first telephone. The flying car. These technologies stand out in our collective mind as iconic innovations. Such innovations, we believe, cause irrevocable social change.

The innovator’s dream, crushed by reality

Unsurprisingly, it is that “flying car” that most technologists seek to create, something so radically different, so completely new, that it will disrupt social lives and business models.

Yet this almost never happens. Radical innovation is rare, and radical innovation that takes root in social life is even more rare. Instead, it is the large number of small innovations that culminate in large-scale social shifts, and it is in that space where technologists should focus.

Fertile Field No. 1: Communication Channels

One such space today is that of online social networks and their respective communication channels.These networks have proliferated, and with them has emerged a dizzying array of “channel choices” through which we must now choose to communicate.

Imagine you have just had a successful first date. Once upon a time, you might have wondered to yourself, “Should I call him?” How quaint. How simple. How 20th Century.

Now, of course, you must create a mental flow chart, with all your channel choices if’d and then’d with your ambiguous social reality. Is he a friend of a friend? Is he your “friend,” on Facebook, on Twitter, on Instagram, or maybe even LinkedIn? Will you see him at the office tomorrow? Will you “see” him on skype later? The flow chart proliferates with innumerable maladroit choices, each one a potential social landmine ready to blow up in your face (and his).

Welcome to the 21st Century, the time of enriched social channels but impoverished social etiquette.

Worse still, individuals are not only ridden with social angst over their choices, but they are also overwhelmed with notifications.

Adroit social actors will of course navigate this field, if not with actual aplomb then at the very least with competency. The rest of us are left with a dizzying set of communication choices and nary an @EmilyPost to help us. It is a bewildering time.

Mind The Gap: The TRiZ Method

Such times are ripe for innovation. At this moment (and I do mean a “moment” in the historical sense of the word), there is a gap in technology. Such gaps are, unbeknownst to most, the most opportune for new products and services to emerge. They are also ripe for new social practices to emerge, which most tech observers tend to miss, gloss over, or underestimate the impact of.

TRiZ analysis (or теория решения изобретательских задач, or theory of inventive problem-solving) shows us why “breakthrough” technologies are rare and often without the hockey-stick growth of other, more mundane innovations.

One truth of technological change is its remarkable unevenness. Some technologies grow and change at remarkable rates, while other technologies languish, perhaps due to technical limitations, or more likely due to political economic reasons. Take, for example, the incredible growth of SMS texting on mobile phones. SMS is a simple technology, requiring entry-level technical skills. It is not “sexy” but it is massively adopted.

SMS turned 20-years-old in 2012, and is now the pre-eminent way mobile phone users around the world communicate. By 2002, Indian mobile phone users were sending 250 billion SMS texts a day. In 2008, SMS replaced voice phone calls as the primary way people use their mobile phones in the United States.

SMS took off because mobile phone voice calls remained too expensive for most people to use frequently. SMS, by contrast, was initially free on most mobile systems.  Adding even more wood to the fire was the fact that SMS is discreet and socially inconspicuous. A quick text under the table is far less socially intrusive than a voice phone call while having dinner.

Is SMS a killer app? Yes. Was it ever pursued by technologists to be the killer app? No.


The Gap in Communication Channels

There is a similar fertile gap waiting to be filled in today’s harrowing communication landscape. Users are begging for tools that help them make the most socially astute channel choices, and at the same time, reduces the information overload they are experiencing. Our search for notifications has corrupted our social and internal lives.

We are no longer able to navigate the sheer volume and socially ambiguous nature of our communications ecosystem. The Killer App of the 20-teens will not be the one that ADDS to that morass, but the one that saves us from it.

The communications landscape is primed for a tool that will “even out” the uneven technological development. We have no limit to the number of channel choices we can make, but we have no way to manage these choices well. Hootsuite is one tool that has filled this gap, to a limited degree. It allows us to manage multiple Twitter feeds, by multiple people. Its main advantage is its ability to help small businesses manage social media, which today equates to the sum total of small-business marketing strategy.

We need a similar tool, not just for Twitter, but for all our channels. The Next Big Thing is likely to be a tool that saves us from our Technology Loops and helps us manage the context collapse that social networks now present us.

In my next post, I’ll explore another fertile ground for innovation: managing the rapidly proliferating data that we ourselves are generating, just by living our increasingly digital lives.