It's Not Easy Being Red

Editor's Note: If you have questions or comments for Terry, you can reach him in the IT Trends forum by clicking here.

Uh oh, he's going to get all political. Nope. This has nothing to do with red state versus blue state, despite the political season. Nor has it anything to do with communist red, despite the current news about relations between the United States and Russia. It has to do with the proliferation of information that's getting closer and closer to home with each new information technology advance. The "Red Folk" I refer to in this title are people who have this natural urge to control things. For them, life is getting tough.

I recently wrote about Google's SketchUp's "Build Your Campus in 3D" competition, for which projects were submitted June 1. (See Augmenting Reality: Measuring It First.) In it, I referenced the privacy issues voiced by many people. Right around the same time, a news item titled The Google 'ick' Factor got a lot of attention and raised a whole heck of a lot of new privacy issues.

The feature provides high-resolution photos to enable street-level tours so users can get a more realistic, 360-degree look at places they might go or spots where they already have been. To guard against privacy intrusions, Google said all the photos were taken from vehicles driving along public streets during the past year. The photos will be periodically updated, but the company hasn't specified a timetable for doing so.

Now comes a news item about a suggestion from the Department of Homeland Security, DHS Wants Cell Phones to Detect Chemical, Radioactive Material.
At the 2007 DHS Science and Technology Stakeholders Conference, S&T Director of Innovation Roger McGinnis outlined how the system could work. Cell phone sensors would continually test the air for harmful compounds and digitally relay any information to a central monitoring system if they find anything amiss.

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S&T spokesman Christopher Kelly said the theoretical system's strength would lie in the sheer number of sensors. The cell phone sensors might be less sophisticated than highly advanced ones some developers are fitting into hand-held models, but they would make up for it in what Kelly called "ubiquitous detection."
The idea is called "Cell-All." Personally, I think it is genius. Kind of in the "SETI at Home" family of ideas and related to the Smart Dust concept that I've written a few times about. Only in this case, instead of scattered dust-like particles, we have scattered human beings with sensor-packed cell phones.

Picture being able to scatter hundreds of tiny sensors around a building to monitor temperature or humidity. Or deploying, like pixie dust, a network of minuscule, remote sensor chips to track enemy movements in a military operation.

Now, if you're like me you find this kind of stuff so exciting that, reading about it, you might be quivering like a dog waiting for its human to release the Frisbee. However, everyone is not like me.

A few weeks ago my office held its annual retreat. The primary exercise involved staff members receiving and then exchanging small cards with statements about themselves. Once we each had time to exchange the cards to get ones that we felt described us, we were told that the colors of the cards had something to do with grouping us in four different categories that relate to working styles. It's likely that you've done something like this before. There are a variety of different such systems out there.

To no one's surprise, in this system I am a "Green." I like to start things, not finish them; I value creativity and innovation over order. When we staffers gathered by colors in the four corners of the space we were in, we Green Folk were diametrically opposed to the Red Folk. In my own personal interpretation of all this, the Red Folk are the people who have to spend time trying to keep Green Folk somewhat under control. You know: Have you turned in your credit card receipts yet? Are you up to date on your time tracking.

Poor Red Folk! How can they even read the newspaper or browse websites? Every day brings new revelations of how more and more information is getting free and out of anyone's control. I recall one Red Person I worked with years ago who was so outraged that the was speechless for minutes and minutes the first time that I showed her that it was possible to get a--at that time quite fuzzy--view of the roof of her house.

Of course I am being a bit specious here, looking at people through only one of many filters. When it comes to their personal information, Red People definitely want to control others from having the information. On the other hand, the Red Folk/Green Folk categorization is often a matter of context, and I suspect that many campus-based environmental health and safety people staff are certainly Red Folk in their jobs. (I'm not just guessing about that; one of the many lists I am on is for those people and they definitely have a red streak.) Imagine their delight if they could have all of the patients, students, staff, and faculty in a large teaching and research medical facility carry these "Cell-All" devices!

Despite the concerns of some, there are many people who would want these sensor-packed cell phones and who would be willing to pay for them. Count me among the latter, so long as there's an "off" switch that I can use. Also count me among those who like the Google initiatives (that I know about), too. In other words, color me green.

It's not that I am incapable of feeling concern about privacy. It's just that I see no way--and many experts agree--to make a perfectly "safe" campus without creating a campus no one would want to spend time on; ditto for the rest of the world. Like one person quoted in the "ick" article said:
"It's a tough area, but it just seems there is no way around the fact that public spaces are public spaces.... [Y]ou don't want to create an environment where it becomes illegal to take photos in public. It can be riskier not to be able to see something than it is to be able to see something."
Editor's Note: If you have questions or comments for Terry, you can reach him in the IT Trends forum by clicking here.

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