University of Calgary

Dr. Tom Keenan on What Makes Technology Creepy

Submitted by jwalla on Mon, 2012/05/07 - 8:15am.

When is technology fun and when is it creepy? If Facebook suggests an old lover as a possible friend, but misses your current one, does that make your hair stand on end? Is it weird that people are sending their DNA samples to Anecestry.com to do “genetic genealogy?” What about the iPhone app that scans for nearby females and displays their photos and profiles? Chic or Creepy?

Dr. Tom Keenan wrote his first computer program at Princeton University in 1965, where he managed to wangle access to one of the first mainframe computers. He was there on a scholarship to study “The Philosophical Concept of Liberty” with philosopher Robert Nozick, who went on the chair Harvard’s philosophy department. Decades later, Keenan is still thinking about how the libertarian ideas of J.S. Mill, Friedrich Hayek and Isaiah Berlin can co-exist with the inspirations of Steve Jobs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.

One thing Keenan has learned is that creepiness often arises from the combining of information that we’ve already given away. “Girls Around Me” simply links together information from Facebook and the check-in program foursquare in an unanticipated way that plays into the hands of stalkers.

Keenan believes we’re approaching a “privacy singularity” where technology, taken collectively, will know more about you than your spouse or closest friend. Amazon knows your reading habits well enough to suggest books you’d like. Google’s mail-reading bots select ads with uncanny accuracy. A simple photo of your face can now track you across multiple databases, including ones where you think you’re anonymous.  It can even provide clues to your emotional state.

In his recent academic book chapter “Are They Making Our Privates Public?” Keenan reports on Open Government initiatives from New York, Philadelphia, Edmonton and the European Union. He has found these public databases can all be “tortured” to yield private information ranging from home addresses to voting choices to the name of your first pet. 

Professor Keenan is the Associate Dean of Environmental Design in Environmental Design. He is an Adjunct Professor of Computer Science, Member of the Institute for Security, Privacy and Information Assurance, and a Research Fellow of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies. 

Keenan does a number of media interviews, lectures widely, and writes regular columns for the Calgary Herald and the Business Edge. His latest book, Technocreep: the Surrender of Privacy and the Capitalization of Intimacy is earning rave reviews.

A multiple award winner, Keenan is profiled on the Great Teachers at the U of C website.

You can follow Keenan on Twitter @drfuture, visit his EVDS profile and his webpage by click on the highlighted links.

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