Action Streams, Privacy, and Harvesting Data

While browsing through Twitter messages a week or two ago, I encountered a message from David, pointing me to his new website. Go check it out for a minute, then come back.

Did you look at it? Good. Now consider this for a moment.

Action Streams, a new Movable Type plugin, is a great new creation that allows you to combine all the little feeds from many of the activities you do on the internet– say, links from Digg and Ma.Gnolia, photos from Flickr, blog posts from Vox or LiveJournal or wherever– into one continuous feed that will be very familiar to users of, for instance, Facebook; they call it a newsfeed. So I saw David’s webpage, and found myself completely shocked– for many different reasons.

First, of course, this is a great achievement– we can see every action David (or any other user) is taking across the internet. If I want to see what he’s up to, I just need to go to his homepage, and it will tell me what he’s doing– no need to subscribe to 20 different feeds, or visit 20 different sites.

On the other hand, did you actually read what I just said? I can go to a website and see everything David is doing, anywhere on the internet. Wait– isn’t that a massive, massive violation of privacy?

I find myself very torn on this. Obviously David consented– he replaced his old website (which was only slightly less boring than mine currently is) with this plugin, so he obviously wants it all collected. But think if I was simply stalking him– look at how much information I can get! Or in the slightly less creepy case, if I’m an employer/parent/whatever, think how I can use this to say “no you weren’t working at 6PM, you were reading Slashdot! I have the record right here!” (Obviously they don’t understand multitasking– I, for one, often browse random websites while thinking about hard problems, which helps me work better. But I digress.)

On the other hand, it lets anyone quickly get a sense of who David is, what sorts of things he does/reads/takes pictures of/watches/etc., which might be nice. And it provides one central repository for him to contain all those profiles, from all those websites– so if people want to know how to find him on a certain service, they can just go check his website.

With all the concern about employers not hiring people based on their Facebook profiles, however, I can’t help but wonder if this sort of thing will be harmful in the long run.

It is, however, extraordinarily cool– and, to me, quite tempting, to just put everything I’m doing out there, so that I have control of it all. If I see what these applications are exposing about me, then maybe I can truly get privacy– because if there’s something I don’t want exposed, I have a quick way to check if it’s being broadcast or not. Is this, perhaps, a new way of thinking about privacy? In the discussions I’ve read on blogs, the OpenID lists, and the Identity Gang list, people seem concerned most with user control– and perhaps this new technology is an attempt to show that control does not only mean hiding data, but allowing us to marshal and display the data. Six Apart’s corporate blog mentions some of these issues as well (as well as many of the other interesting steps 6A is taking in this field).

I’m fascinated by the idea– and I might even try it out as well. If any employers decide not to employ me because I’m a liberal who thinks that free speech and cryptography are fundamental human rights– well, you probably could have gotten that from my blog, or just asking. :-)

And if anyone does decide not to employ me on that basis, please let me know! Always curious to hear; gives me a good idea of what places I wouldn’t like anyway.