Privacy: Red Coat, Black Coat


The following is a write up of my notes I prepared for an appearance on the BBC World Service show Culture Shock about the state of privacy (Monday Oct 9...

Guy Brighton
  • 2 october 2006

The following is a write up of my notes I prepared for an appearance on the BBC World Service show Culture Shock about the state of privacy (Monday Oct 9 2006). Some of this is based on reader comments left here. This article includes my first version of Red Coat, Black Coat – a story I hope to develop with help from feedback here and elsewhere to describe the options we have regarding a privacy-free future.

Privacy seems to have been an ongoing concern for a while now – but it’s only recently have I noticed people make positive thoughts about the future. For the vast majority of us, we’re a little naïve about the vast amount of information that has been gathered about us – and it’s only when there’s a slip – like AOL’s release of the search records of 650,000 users – that we get reminded about privacy.

Why was the AOL release such a big deal? I’m no expert or computer programmer but if I had your search records, I could probably work out what you did for a living, where you shopped, what brands you liked, where you lived and worked and what the names of your children were.

So will we have a Big Brother like future? Well, I’m not too sure – and I’ve tried to suggest the reasons why in a ‘Postcard from the Future’ called Red Coat, Black Coat.

Red Coat, Black Coat

It’s about that time again and Steve grabs his black Macintosh to go and meet his one and only real friend Jill. As he wraps it round him, he looks at the corners of his room, he looks out of his window then slips out of his front door without making a sound.

Wrapped in his black coat, to anyone who spots him, Steve looks paranoid – trying to hide. In fact, Steve doesn’t just look paranoid. He is paranoid. Paranoid every time he swipes his card to get into work, every time he has to carry a mobile phone, every time he chats on the web, every time he removes the last can of soda from his fridge. He’s being watched. He knows it. Unknown organizations are watching his movements, brands are watching his consumption, details of every action Steve takes is being crunched by speedy computers that predict. Computers that predict Steve’s shopping habits, health habits, voting habits, sexual habits. Steve tries to shield himself from what he calls an invasion of privacy. He uses software to mask his identity, he gives false names, he uses alternative underground brands.

Jill leaves her house in her red coat and as she strolls down the street everyone seems to know her even if they haven’t met her before

Unlike paranoid Steve, Jill is considered as the socially evolved. It’s not only her red coat that presents an image to the world of how she wants to be seen – Jill understands and manipulates how the world sees her, how companies see her, how her friends see her. Using technology that was developed maybe twenty years ago, Jill knows nearly everything everybody else knows about her. And in the same way she uses his bright red coat to make a statement about herself, she manages the data about herself to present the image she wants.

Information is like fashion – to be use, shown off and even bartered with. Her friend Steve hates people even knowing about his name – but what does a name really say about Jill. Or the school she went to, the color of her skin or her date of birth. Jill is Jill. Or the Jill she wants you and the companies who want to sell to her think she is.

Of course people know about Jill through her blog where she talks about all the things she wants to talk about. And as she’s chatted to other bloggers, she’s found other likeminded souls. And that’s how she’s found new friends she’s never have met before – even been contacted by a company that may have a job for someone just like her.

At the bus station, Steve pays cash for his ticket in the machine. He doesn’t see the idling bus change its number and chug forward to the stop to take him on his way.

Meanwhile, at the subway Jill dabs her thumb on the scanner and uses his frequent user reward to travel for free.

On the bus, Steve pulls the collars of his coat around his ears to try to stop the blare from the ads. Papered on the back of seats, the moving graphics try to sell him shampoo, cheap holidays and a magazine for retirees.

Jill’s subway ride is silent. It’s peaceful – with the ad panels temporarily turned down to let her enjoy the great tunes her music player has selected from a global jukebox. All this peace kindly brought to her by Target stores.

At the café, Jill’s drink, the coffee makers start her mocha just as she enters the store. Just in time – Jill’s heavy with shopping bags as she just saw the greatest clothes to match her Red Coat in the window of her favorite fashion store down the way. And they fit perfectly

By the time Steve makes it to the café, he’s a mess – harassed by the world around him. The staff behind the counter guess the fake name he was going to give but they wrongly guess the drink he was going to have. He’ll have to wait until they make the drink again.

“Don’t worry. Come over and meet my new friends,” she says as she waves to a table of people.

“How do you get to meet new people like you?” Steve says.

“I haven’t yet. I met them though the blog.”

“But they look like they know you well…”

“It’s the coat,” Jill replies pointing out their red coats too.

So why am I painting an apparent invasion of privacy as useful?

Privacy is dead. It’s over.

We can’t wear black coats anymore. Steve is looking for his 15 minutes of oblivion and it’s futile – whether he likes it or not. He needs to take action – he needs to understand what’s known about him and take action. He needs to present himself in a new coat a coat that says something about him. It doesn’t have to be red – it could be navy and say, don’t approach me – but he needs to take that action – and in the end, I don’t think he wants to be alone.

It happens today already on every level. If you go into a night club today in American cities, they scan your driving license. Your driving license is one of the most important pieces of ID – and to get in and have a drink and dance – you have to pass it over to get all the information recorded. What happens to all that data. Where does it go?

Many of the things I’ve mentioned in the postcard exist today and we’re already shaping what is known about us. Like Jill’s music player, we can tell the online jukeboxes Last.FM and Pandora what songs they play to us we like, which ones we hate and they alter the selection for us.

RFID tags in store or café loyalty cards can let managers and coffee makers know when you’re passing through the door. By looking at my shopping habits against my credit card bill, they already know my preferences – cappuccino or red hats – and because I know that, I can change it. Or even delete that.

The idea of Steve’s bus changing route is not impossible to think of either. Today, in internet cafes, the price changes depending on the amount of people using the service. Why can’t buses change direction depending on the real-time demand?

Let’s also consider how Jill met all these new people in the café. This comes from personal experience. Online, I’m a pretty well known person. Although I started blogging with a false name I realized that people didn’t really know me – and couldn’t relate to the real me – so I put on my red coat and revealed more information about me. Just enough to help people make opinions about who I am. By doing this, I can place a notice for a coffee morning called Likemind on my blog and 30 people turn up who don’t even know me. The interesting thing is that the people who turn up aren’t exactly random. The group is self-selecting. Not anyone is going to come to a random coffee morning – it’s more likely that people who have got to know me – or Noah who also runs the coffee morning – from our blogs. We therefore all tend to be likeminded. Hence the name.

But what about all this information I give out about myself? Jill with her red coat knows that we have already lost privacy. We lost privacy when we adopted the web en-masse and when we started walking around with telephones. Many people feel that technology is going to create Orwellian scenarios – but it won’t. To be honest, I feel companies are doing a poor job with the information they have. If a reader looks at a person the same age in the office they work in – I bet they think that person is pretty different to them – but many companies today see them as the same type of person with the same interests.

Technology is going to empower us. It can make us strong. Once we know what companies and brands know about us – then we can take action about it.

How do we know about what people know about us? Well there are laws like the Data Protection Act in the UK which grants access to data companies own. But this is a very static thing. There’s a group called the Attention Trust in the US who are campaigning to make us more aware of the paper trail we are leaving. They link to a site called – and when you switch on, it tells you about all the information you are leaving and what companies think about you. Once you have knowledge like this, you have power.

Power to do what? Like Jill and her red coat, you have the power to look a certain way and people and companies will react to you in a certain way. You can correct their opinion and you can ask them to stop behaving in a certain way. You can even make money from your data.

There’s a site called which already allows people to sell their information to companies. I don’t think the implications of our power over our personal data have been fully thought through yet. But think of how many red hat companies find it hard to find people with red coats. In a common forum, they can ask for red coat people to come forward and say they will give $10 if Jill gives them the time of day to listen to a pitch to sell her a hat that matches her coat. Then that changes everything.

OK – Your feedback is appreciated. Remember, this is thought-in-motion and not a final analysis. Would love suggestions of other examples I can add to Jill and Steve’s story. [Img ref]

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