Fast Forward: Is Nothing Secret?

Fast Forward: Is Nothing Secret?

For centuries, people have kept diaries, giving us valuable insights into historical events and ordinary life in times past. Samuel Pepys wrote a harrowing account of the Great Fire of London in 1666. James Boswell chronicled upper-class life in Europe in the 1700s. Anne Frank recorded her tragedy as a young Jew during the Holocaust.

Traditionally, diaries were very private, kept under lock and key. (Boswell’s journals weren’t discovered until the 1920s.) The subjects of a diary didn’t know what the diarist wrote about them. But in the digital age, that’s changing. Millions of people are exposing their diaries to the world on websites, blogs, and MySpace pages.

Result: embarrassments, scandals, and lawsuits. Young people have lost scholarships and jobs after posting sordid tales of wild behavior—often complete with revealing photos and videos. Friends caught in these public exposés have challenged their unflattering depictions, raising legal questions about libel and privacy.

It’s going to get wilder. Improved technology makes it possible to keep digital records of our lives around the clock. Cell-phone cameras are going everywhere, including restrooms and locker rooms. Soon it will be impossible to know if a camera is concealed in a wristwatch or piece of jewelry.

I have a tiny MP3 player with a built-in microphone that can record 18 hours of audio to just 256MB of memory. Nobody would notice the recorder in my pocket. If I wanted to, I could continuously record my whole waking day, every day. A year’s worth of my life would fit on a 100GB hard drive—not large by today’s standards. And 100GB of webspace costs less than $100 a year, so I could share my recordings with the world. Before long, it will be easy and economical for anyone to keep a nonstop audio/video diary of their entire life, posting daily updates online.

When an airliner crashes, investigators retrieve the black-box data recorder to analyze what happened. Someday, police will retrieve an accident victim’s personal data recorder to find the truck that ran him down. Then they’ll discover what happened at the crazy party he attended before the accident. Keep that in mind the next time you do something crazy at a party.

Tom Halfhill was formerly a senior editor for Byte magazine and is now an analyst for Microprocessor Report.

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