A couple of weeks ago my flatmate, Claudio, was called by a very angry Police officer who wanted to question him as a possible suspect for breaking some other guy’s ribs at Leicester Square tube station on a night last December. Everyone who knows him would consider this very possibility almost a funny one to think about. However, the whole episode was great to think about… privacy and data!
The first thing that comes to the mind of the person being questioned, and being confident of their own innocence, is “I need an alibi“. “It was not me” is not sufficient to the Police, they will ask “Ok – so what where you doing that day at that time“?.
Of course, when asked this question you are surprised enough, and possibly shocked and worried about consequences, that you don’t necessarily remember. It’s easy to fall into despair. “What will I say?“, he asked me.
This is when I thought about the magic word: “data“.
Each one of us disseminates data about themselves, especially heavy Internet users as we both are. So, the first thing I did was to check my Gmail account. E-mails and chats for that specific date. A day like any other became suddenly meaningful and full of memories.
For example, there was a significant lower amount of e-mails than my average day, a sign that I was mostly out, not at work. It turned out it was a Saturday. It seemed from my e-mails that I was heading to a party that night: it turns out I was at my rugby team’s Christmas party.
Why is what *I* was doing useful to Claudio? Very simply, because we spend most Saturday evenings with the same group of friends. Apparently I was not with him that Saturday – I could not be his alibi. It also seemed I checked back at my station around 11pm. A very early time to go back home on a Saturday after a party. What happened?
Before despairing, I made a step back to the e-mail flow and found a very peculiar e-mail at about 1230 saying just “Klaus” and a phone number. Funnily enough, I don’t know anyone called Klaus so… who is Klaus? Why did I mail his number?
You should know that I live between Alexandra Palace and Wood Green and I have this habit of walking to Muswell Hill for a coffee on Saturday mornings. I also tend to have lunch at home. So, 1230… I was probably on the way back from Muswell Hill. So I started – using OpenStreetMaps – to check for all possible locations I tend to visit on the way back. There’s a shop, a tennis club I’ve played at, a friend who lives at the corner of the tennis club, a couple of cafes, and a Piano shop.
That’s when the Eureka bulb switched on.
I headed to Facebook: not many status updates, but one very important with a photograph. A single photograph showing me in a bus, on the way back home, with heavy snow outside!
I remembered that to avoid the snow I entered the Piano shop. I was moving to another flat at the time, and was investigating the possibility of getting a free piano from the Freecycle. I entered the piano shop to enquire about the cost of piano removals – Klaus being the name of the van man. That’s also why I headed back home very early after the party: I was worried about transport not working because of the snow. I remembered I found Claudio at home when I was back.
I checked again my e-mails and chats: the flow interrupted around 6pm. Basically, there was a hole of about 4 hours in which I didn’t know where Claudio was. Still, we had a track of where and when to look at. There was no chat/e-mail/facebook status update from him on that night, suggesting he had been out, too. Hence, we contacted all our common friends he could have been with that night. All of a sudden he said: “Now I remember it all! After you went out, I called Jasmin and went with her for dinner at Satsuma with her friend visiting from america“. In less than 20 minutes, photos showing him in the restaurant were in his e-mail account.
More interestingly, it turned out he actually was at Leicester Square tube station when the police claims he was. More worringly, he had been alone for some time before meeting his friend.
I’m not a good thriller writer. The finale is probably obvious to you now. He had touched his Oyster card out at the same time the person the Police is looking for was in the view of a CCTV camera. Of course when Police showed us the pictures, it was obviously not him: they had called him because his Oyster card is registered.
But can you see why I’m amazed by this story? A day of which we couldn’t remember anything is now a story full of details.
Moreover: there was an accusation built on data (coming from the Oyster Card system), to which we found a defense built on data (coming from Gmail, Foursquare, and Facebook).
I began to think what this story would have been before Gmail, before Facebook, before check-ins? I know the answer: Claudio would have gone to the police scared, unable to answer the questions in all of his honesty, almost sure he had no way of defending himself. Instead, thanks to this data society he was able to go there without any fear, ready to hear their story and to respond to their questions, being sure he knew every move of that day.
Online services have become our memory.
Don’t get me wrong: I still find problematic the use of users data and the way most online companies deal with privacy. It’s maybe scary the fact that on-line strangers-managed services have become a replacement for our own memory. However, the mountain of data they allow us to have access to can be useful and helpful. The question is how to make good use of these data, and store them in a secure and private way that allow us to decide who we want to share the data with (luckily not the Police).
Personal lesson learnt: I will now save all my Oyster history (before it expires every 3 months), check-ins, and latitude. I want to be ready for questioning.