Last Monday New York Times tech columnist David Pogue wrote a post in his blog titled Free Overseas Phone Calls about Futurephone. To use Futurephone one dials an Iowa number, then 011, the country code, and the desired phone number, and then waits for the call to go through. Futurephone does not require users to sign up or collect any personal information. Pogue confirmed that Futurephone worked as promised. On Thursday he wrote a post titled Some Perspective on Privacy about the reaction of many of his readers:
“A bunch of you, however, had a reaction that surprised me: ‘I wonder how much data they’ll harvest? Not just phone numbers but also the content of the conversations.’”
Pogue is astonished that many of his readers believe Futurephone to be a “giant phone number collection scam,” or worse–a Trojan horse for eavesdropping. He asks why someone would start a telephone company for the purpose of harvesting phone numbers and rolls his eyes (figuratively, of course) at the concept of a private company listening to all of these conversations to learn–what, exactly?
Inconsistent attitudes about personal privacy are endemic to this discussion. We exaggerate far-fetched risks such as these and ignore the bits of ourselves we leave at every step. In my privacy law seminars, first we defined what we meant by “privacy.” For a word we use all of the time, it’s meaning is remarkably subjective. Then we examined the tension between our subjective concepts–“this is what I want to be private”–and the scope of the law’s patchwork protection of privacy. There were clear lines between privacy advocates and privacy realists.
Pogue is a privacy realist. He says
You’re already in a thousand databases. Your tracks are everywhere. MasterCard knows where you go and what you buy. Your grocery store knows what you eat and how often. You gave up your theoretical online privacy the day you signed up for an Internet account, let alone this newsletter . . . If you’re going to be paranoid, at least focus on the real threats; there are plenty of those to go around.
All of this leaves unanswered the question: what is Futurephone up to, anyway?