Technocreep, book review: The erosion of privacy in a connected world

Smartphones and computers can not only enrich our lives, they can also be used to expose them. This book explores many examples of technological 'creepiness', and offers advice on how to protect your privacy.

Technocreep ● By Thomas P. Keenan ● OR Books ● 265 pages ● ISBN 978-1-939293-40-4 ● £12/$18

Not so long ago, people gave a wide berth to anyone walking down the street talking to themselves. They looked crazy. They might lash out or do something weird or dangerous. They were…creepy. Now, no one notices. They're probably talking on their mobile phone.

What happened is that the widespread adoption of a single technology changed our perception of 'normal'. We now have a reasonable explanation of what formerly seemed to be weird — even creepy — behaviour. As computer security expert Thomas P. Keenan says in Technocreep: The Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy, many factors come together to make up 'creepy'. One of them is uncertainty or, as he calls it 'mystery': the inability to form a mental model that accurately predicts how something mechanical behaves, coupled with a lack of control.

'Technocreep' is a clever title, calling to mind not just technological creepiness, but also 'function creep', which is commonly used to describe the expansion of a program (London's congestion charge, for example) that's designed for one purpose (reducing traffic congestion) into additional areas (such as using the car-tracking data collected by the congestion charge system in criminal investigations). In one of Keenan's thousands of examples, you buy a mobile phone to use for messaging and some social networking. Maybe you have wi-fi and GPS turned on. If so, you have just enabled someone else who is running the app Girls Around Me to learn enough about you to strike up a conversation if he (it's usually a he) thinks you're attractive enough. Was that what you had in mind?

Manifestations of creepiness

Most of the book is taken up with exploring the many manifestations of technological creepiness. Keenan covers the ways our smartphones and computers (including the ones in our cars) can be used to spy on us and invade our privacy, as you'd expect. But he also delves into the way technology is changing our relationships with each other, with our environment, and even our pets. Keenan concludes with advice and tools for protecting privacy online. As is always the case, some of these recommendations are impractical if you want to live in the modern social world. A few have already been superseded by newer revelations: the world of networking equipment, for example, turns out to be much more porous than was imagined when Keenan was writing.

Keenan is the first to acknowledge that it's not all bad. The same technologies that make it easy to spy on us make it easy to stay in touch with distant friends and enhance our lives. But if you've ever told yourself that you're too insignificant, or your life is too fragmented, or you have nothing to hide, or computers are too stupid to truly understand you…then you may want to read this book and think again. Be careful out there.

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