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Ubiquitous Connectivity: Be Careful What You Wish For, Warn Researchers

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SAN FRANCISCO, December 1, 2009 - Technophiles and U.S. policymakers have spent decades promising the public that a ubiquitously-networked society would be a people-powered-utopia filled with useful, actionable information. President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign is the most prominent example of how a group of people capitalized on this vision.

Nevertheless, a thoughtless rush to make the internet pervasive, and to connect with one another socially online could in fact poison the delicately-balanced relationships that exist in the rapidly vanishing concept of the "offline" world, warned several leading thinkers at Supernova, an annual conference on innovation on Tuesday.

"We're not just communicating with people anymore with Twitter,  we're communicating with urban space," argued Nokia's Adam Greenfield in an afternoon presentation on how internet-connected embedded devices are changing the very notion of what it means to live in cities.

Greenfield gave several examples of how emerging applications and the adoption of internet protocol version 6 (ipv6) would enable everything to be connected through the internet, and how that is starting to erode current, unquestioned assumptions underlying our everyday existence.

"Cities have evolved to support plausible deniabilty and anonymity," he said, but new applications, such as embedded sensors with facial recognition technology in Manhattan billboards and similar applications in bus shelters in Brisbane, Australia are threatening to change that notion. One experiment placed biotelemetric sensors on people walking around the Mission District in San Francisco, he said.

Sensors would record the participants body temperature as they moved around the district, and the participants would report on what they were feeling at the moments that the sensors recorded a change in temperature.  Greenfield argued that such an application could then with correlated with other information to make inferences about broad groups of people moving around the city.

"In the blink of an eye, you have a new way to read cities and its conditions," he said. "My contention to you is that this is not what cities are for."

He gave another example, where a friend in a six-unit condominium built a social network for the building. Everyone signed up. In a year, there was a 75 percent turnover.

"You don't necessarily want to know that your neighbor is a Scientologist or a latex freak," he joked. "We live in an abeyance of finding out things about our neighbors."

And whatever we do "find out" about our friends and acquaintances online is very often misunderstood because the information is interpreted out of context, argued Danah Boyd, who studies the uses of social networks at Microsoft Research.

Since more than half of the world's population now lives in cities, according to the United Nations, the impact of such connectivity is not going to be hypothetical for most people, Greenfield argued.

Both speakers argued that the archiving of personal details online makes the process of personal re-invention near impossible.

Perhaps even more insidious is the sale of the information gathered from such networks, Greenfield said. The cash-strapped Brisbane City Council sold the data gathered about bus-shelter users to a private company under a 10-year contract. Those people have no rights to access that data about themselves.

"That's an unacceptable condition," he said.

"[We must] reframe our understanding of public objects: anything in public space with the ability to collect data must provide open access to that data as a matter of principle, and as a matter of  law."

Greenfield and Boyd did acknowledge that broad access to data can also empower people. Greenfield noted that some residents of Oakland, California have been printing mapped-out crime data and confronting the police about the trends, asking them for more policing in high-crime areas.

"The artifacts that flow downstream from embedded network sensors can support public activism and that is very inspiring," Greenfield said.

Sarah Lai Stirland was Contributing Editor for until April 2011. She has covered business, finance and legal affairs, telecommunications and tech policy for 15 years from New York, Washington and San Francisco. She has written for Red Herring, National Journal's Technology Daily, and She's a native of London and Hong Kong, and is currently based in San Francisco.

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