The DNA of Our Behavior

Posted: June 21, 2010 in Location/LBS, Privacy

Just off the phone with a good friend who doesn’t have a Facebook account. She was asking me how various old buddies were doing and I found myself repeating “if you were on Facebook you’d know so-and-so had another kid…” Still, she explained her discomfort with the degree of information available on us and directed me to an interesting-sounding documentary called Erasing David. She had become a bit of an expert about personal privacy issues, and she spent a number of hours tonight regaling stories that she had learned of in her research.

She pointed out two facts with which i could not argue. First — as she and I both know well in our roles as researchers and journalists — It’s really pretty easy to find out a lot about pretty much anyone given very little direct data. It’s happened on occassion that I’ve met someone at a meeting, only learned their first name and some other tidbit (like where they went to school or what they’re doing at work), and in no time found them on Linkedin or Facebook (or elsewhere) and pretty much had access to a solid docier on the person – vacation photos, favorite ice cream — everything. I’m good at working the system, but by no means expert. She was right: it’s unnaturally simple. I argued politely that for the most part it was all pointless information anyway, so it really didn’t matter to me or to them that the data is readily available. She articulated nicely how simple it is for drug companies or retailers to combine just a couple accessible data sources in order to take what would appear to be anonymous data and make it exceptionally revealing. Again, it’s not that I don’t believe her, it’s only that i don’t feel like i care that much, nor that I think its being used against me somehow.

But her second point struck a chord. She said that it’s true that the vast majority of data about us (our tastes, phone records, purchasing habits, etc.) are undifferentiated and banal. But every now and then, if you know how to look, there is something – a book here, a comment there, an angry call to a call center or a musical selection on iTunes — something, that reveals a bit more about who we are, and it’s generally not something we want people to know. Someone’s unhappy in a marriage or debating coming out of the closet, or sending money to an old friend in the middle east, or reading magazines with a conservative bend. Maybe it’s just that you eat junk food or buy knock-off products or watch porn, but whatever it is, our search habits, purchasing habits, travel habits, all can reveal it, sometimes without our even being aware.

Something about this info reminded me of our DNA. It’s often pointed out that 99.9% of our DNA is identical to that of our fellow human beings, 98% with our cousins the chimpanzee. Most of the code is just the stuff that makes us alive, but scattered among the trillions of bits are these small pieces that make us who we are. They are our differences, our uniqueness. They make us human instead of ape. They make us me instead of you. It doesn’t take much, but it’s all important.

We might feel like we have nothing to hide, and enjoy gleaning social and economic benefits from being so transparent, but leaving the info in the open might be used in ways we cannot imagine, and by the time we learn, it’s a bit late. Large corporations gather this data about us, and rarely if ever give it back to us.  They certainly don’t treat it like it’s ours, even though it represents our most personal preferences and private thoughts. Laws make it possible to see your credit score, but you can’t see your purchasing habits from Safeway or Borders.

I told her about what I was doing. PlaceBook will be as different from these things as we can be. All of us working on this project believe location data is both useful and unnaturally private. It should be every individuals’ to understand, to manipulate, and delete if they so chose. If there are benefits to be had, they should largely be ours. Protecting it seems rather straightforward, if there is simply the will. As much as I personally embrace pretty significant transparency, and find that nakedness both practical and empowering, it’s only because i feel in some control there. But i don’t think most people are like me, and don’t like living in the open that way. Better is giving over the control to the individual. We’re convinced that good privacy is good business. I guess we’ll find out.


For as long as I can remember, the Internet provided an odd kind of shroud: it was frequently possible to have a sort of alter ego online. This 1993 New Yorker cartoon articulated this beautifully, and for more than a decade it was the posterchild, literally, of the Internet. MySpace, in its role pioneering the “social network” didn’t do much to change our relationship to the web; it was common for people to have multiple identities there, a range of personas, allowing people to socialize “differently” as different people. Facebook’s not-often-discussed power was always that everyone was a “real person.” You couldn’t hide your real name- and you could only have one account. The earthshaking difference here cannot be overstated. This position was antithetical to the entire way the Internet had evolved. In 2005 I recall it as being novel and refreshing. Before that social networks felt frivolous and stupid. Facebook felt “real.”

By having real people being themselves, other real human dynamics naturally flowed in, and among those were exhibitionism and voyeurism. A lot of people liked living in the open, and even more people enjoyed poking around and getting a glimpse into other people’s lives. Truth is always so much more interesting than fiction. You can’t make that stuff up…

I’m reminded of a wonderful documentary I saw at Sundance ’91 about Coney Island; director Ric Burns went into detail about the success of the Steeplechase – it wasn’t how much fun the ride was, but that people gathered to watch the riders tumble off at the end – it became a spectator sport. This is the nature of “the social web” in general, and Facebook in particular. The addition of “location” into the social web pushes this even further toward an extreme that, while conferring a number of wonderful advantages, also introduces discomfort.

As I said, It used to be that you could have a number of personalities online (which, I propose is not always nefarious and often pragmatic – we are arguably different people with our workmates, our college buddies and our families – and pretending we could maintain a single persona is probably unrealistic.) It also used to be that we could work from anywhere, that we could be location-less on the Internet. I remember the moment I realized that with a laptop and a cell phone, I could be “at work” anywhere I happened to sit down, and that this wasn’t deceptive so much as utterly empowering. In that case, I had left California and was sitting in my brother’s office in Santa Fe, New Mexico… but as far as every single person I interacted with in my workday, nothing was different, nor should it have been. This continues to be true, of course, but now that location information can be tied to my online activities, my relationship with the social-web is changed, in many cases, for the worst.

But “geo” is a modern marvel; it’s only the connecting it to social and, particularly, my “real” identity on Facebook, that sends up warning flares. As has been pointed out by journalists with wonderful clarity, it’s not that I want to be deceptive, but there are times when broadcasting my location will be awkward. And turning off the tracking when I want to be stealth is sometimes just as bad, creating a conspicuous absence that demands attention, and looking all the world like the 18.5 minute gap in the Nixon Watergate tapes…

Maybe the problem is that on Facebook we tend to have hundreds of friends, most of which are only loosely “friends” – more like acquaintances than anything else (didn’t someone prove that we can only truly manage 3 or 4 “close” friends, and only a few dozen more that are anything like “real” friends?) This change in the definition of friends and conflating that with fans begins to alter the bedrock of transparency that makes social networks fun and useful. And not just that we have more people “watching” than we ever used to, in increasingly undefined kinds of relationships, but that by sheer number, the work it takes to manage “who sees what” increases beyond the point of practicality. We just toss up our hands and say “f*ck it – if they care what I had for breakfast, it won’t bother me” but that rationale breaks down with location. Where I happen to be and where I go is far more personal than what I think.  What I think and have to say is in the “No one knows you’re a dog” category; but where I am turns the internet into an intimacy lens, forcing me to make decisions I don’t want to make — “do i want them to know where i am?” Really? I am expected to answer that question with frequency? I don’t want to.

We don’t want to throw the baby out with this particular rejection of bathwater: the geo data itself isn’t the problem, just the platforms where it resides. Personally, I think we have a better way…

For a range of reasons, the question has come up around here of what defines a social network. Wikipedia gives this broad statement (which i have slightly edited for length):

A social network is a social structure made of individuals which are connected by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as friendship, kinship, common interest, financial exchange, dislike, sexual relationships, or relationships of beliefs, knowledge or prestige.

I think that’s pretty good, but I thought i could add to it. To me, a social network at its core is a system that functions on the principles of a “network effect” — that is: as more people join the network, increasing value is conferred to the members. In other words, a social network has no value for one member, and has a lot more value for two… and as the number increases, the value increases faster. That’s a network effect. No network effect and it’s not a social network.

I thought at first that the activity of “sharing” information between an individual and others might be a defining attribute of a social network. I think that you might need to utilize a social network to share information (phone, email, etc.) but I no longer believe this is meaningful as a defining attribute. I can share a post from my blog, but my blog is not a social network.

No, I think that the foundation of a network effect is what defines a network, and the “social” part distinguishes the network as one for socializing, for meeting and connecting to people. As we spend our days building features and defining what PlaceBook is, we continue to find it useful to understand what we are not: we’re not a social network. We are enormously useful for one member, or millions. We are a safe and comprehensive service to manage your location information, and give it back to you with simple tools and powerful applications.

You’re right: it will be better when we can just show you…

In one room in Menlo Park we do architecture and engineering all day, and it’s really fun. Around 3pm I had this observation:

Architecture is imagining something that isn’t – and describing it in such utter clarity that it can be made in physical form. Engineering is about taking that description and making it real. It involves figuring out how to break an object or process down into its functional components, building those pieces, and assembling them into the whole working structure.

Rahmal said this summed it up nicely for him.

Taking the day off tomorrow to attend the CFP Conference. Tonight I’ve been watching the videos they’ve posted on their wiki. Interesting to be diving into this world concurrent with all the hubub surrounding these open letters to and from facebook concerning privacy. An exciting time to be doing this work!

This has been fun. We’re starting to talk to people about what we’re doing, and everyone seems interested. We had over a thousand beta requests just over night, and it looks like around 1700 people watched (at least some) of Scoble’s interview here. Tonight we offer some more organized information, our first PlaceBook press release. Jon Pincus, the conference chair at the CFP event, was nice enough to not only be excited about what we were up to, but to give us a quotation for the release.

Here’s the PDF.

btw: I’m not sure there really is a “getting ready” for a conference like this. I believe you go and see what people are talking about, and when appropriate, offer some opinion. Or am I just rationalizing procrastination…


PlaceBook: A Holistic Location Service Focuses on Consumer Privacy
(San Jose, CA) – June 15, 2010 – At the opening of the ACM Conference on Computers,
Freedom & Privacy today, PublicEarth, Inc. announced the launch of a new consumer
website: PlaceBook, “your life, by location.” Using a user’s location data along with other
geographically-oriented content, the site safely aggregates the information and gives it back
to that consumer through a range of applications.
“We continue to be concerned that websites and products that utilize a person’s GPS data
do so in a pretty cavalier manner,” said Michael Rubin, CEO of PublicEarth. “All our work
has shown us that a person’s location information, particularly as GPS technology becomes
more accurate and more pervasive, is perhaps the most private of all an individual’s data; in
some ways more private than financial and medical data.” Rubin is speaking on a panel
Thursday at 1:30pm, along with leaders in the consumer privacy space.
PlaceBook collects member’s location data, and stores it in a personal data vault where it is
managed in secure layers and though various degrees of encryption. Says CTO Tom
DiGrazia, formerly of eBay; “Our commitment is to make location-related data useful to
consumers in a host of fantastic ways while still protecting individual privacy.”
When the site opens later this summer the initial applications will begin to demonstrate the
utility in personal GPS data with tools for weight loss and fitness, healthier living, and trip
planning. In addition to practical tools, the user experience will provide a novel way to
manage and organize map-based information. “Location is a hot segment online today, but
it’s mostly being treated as a game, or social data,” Says Rubin. “The buzzword has been
“Social-Geo,” but geo is not really the same as social. PlaceBook establishes a foundation
that is both secure and private; social is just one use-case in a larger landscape.”
Adds Rubin: “It’s not a secret that many popular websites that collect this data have proven
themselves somewhat unworthy stewards of personal privacy. We want to see this space
grow, and cannot imagine it doing so without first managing the privacy issue. This is
where PlaceBook comes in.”
CFP Conference Chair Jon Pincus added: “One of our goals bringing CFP to Silicon Valley
this year is to engage with the companies like PlaceBook that are on the cutting edge of
technology. There’s no substitute for building privacy protections in from the beginning.” is currently preparing to launch in private beta and then will increasingly
open the site to larger number of users throughout the summer.


It goes on for 30 minutes. I have nothing to add.

Frenetic Activity: Part 1

Posted: June 8, 2010 in Uncategorized

Shhh…I’m typing this while I should be working; everyone is heads-down all around me. June has brought the hum of activity upon HQ with a full house of engineering, UX, biz dev, and all that good start-up stuff — debates in the kitchen, frenetic ideation on the whiteboards, and yes, splash fights in the pool (Okay – i made this last one up; we have a pool but so far no one has stopped working long enough to float around. But we can dream). In less than 5 weeks we got ourselves moved and set up in Silicon Valley, pulled together a killer team from ex-eBay, ex-Netflix, ex-Local Matters), and began coding.

What i’m procrastinating is my preparation for next week’s Computers, Freedom and Privacy conference in San Jose. I’m on a panel *(Thurs 1:30pm) along with luminaries in the field, and i’m both honored and intimidated to be among them:

  • Dorothy Attwood, Senior Vice President, Public Policy and Chief Privacy Officer, AT&T
  • Mitchell Baker, CEO, Mozilla Foundation
  • Deborah Estrin, Professor of Computer Science, UCLA, and Director, Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS)
  • Monica Lam, Professor of Computer Science, Stanford University
  • Ginger McCall, Staff Counsel, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)

I believe i’m the posterchild for small businesses who want to utilize private location information, and i’m keeping an eye out for pitchforks and torches. We’re doing everything we can to establish a really secure, really appropriate system that manages lots of personal location information – and in our seeking guidance from experts and consumer advocates, I have found myself on this panel. I believe my naive optimism was refreshing.

Next week we announce more about what we’re building and allow interested parties to sign up for the private beta. We’ll select from the applicants and roll it out slowly as we build new features. You can sign up here, but otherwise, if you’re at the conference, please say hi.