By Tom Keane
BOSTON: The first great wave of Internet applications got us all connected. The next wave will be to figure out how to reverse that.
Shortly after Edward Snowden’s revelations about the National Security Agency, Russian intelligence agencies were reportedly thinking of getting rid of computers altogether, going back to typewriters and paper — all, supposedly, untraceable. The folks who make Liquid Paper were probably delighted, but spies using mid-20th century equipment are not going to be a match for those using today’s technologies.
Still, the Russians had a point. We all want to be connected until we don’t want to be connected. Much has been written about the Internet generation’s indifference to privacy. People publicly post the most intimate parts of their lives or, more egregiously, the most boringly mundane. That’s just the way they are, says everyone, shaking their heads at the lack of a barrier between the personal and the public.
That’s now changing. The NSA revelations are spurring a healthy rise in paranoia, but there’s also an emerging awareness that there are genuine consequences from sharing too much with too many — consequences that can live on years after that embarrassing photo was drunkenly posted. And entrepreneurs have begun offering up solutions.
Snapchat, for example, has taken the smartphone world by storm. The basic idea is that photos you share with others vanish after 10 second or less. They can be viewed but not saved or recirculated. (How powerful is this idea? Last November, Google supposedly offered $4 billion to acquire the company.)
Meanwhile, a newly released app called Confide does for e-mail what Snapchat does for photos. E-mails sent via Confide appear as a series of solid boxes. Swipe over the boxes with a mouse or finger and the words appear. But once swiped, the words disappear, never to be seen again. Both Snapchat and Confide let senders know if a recipient tries to take a photo or screen shot of the message.
There are other needs. Surfers could use a decent anonymizer tool to hide Internet protocol addresses and so prevent companies and marketers from knowing who they are as they flit from website to website (existing services, such as anonymizer.com, are slow and cumbersome).
Office workers would love an application that could prevent accidental reply-alls or group broadcasting of sensitive communications. And smartphones need anti-hacking protections to prevent others from tracking locations or seeing private messages.
There’s a sense by many that the new privacy apps are largely intended to benefit the salacious and illegal. And indeed, if former Congressman Anthony Weiner had been a regular user of Snapchat, he might now be the mayor of New York. Then too, if Bridget Kelly, senior staffer to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, had used Confide to send her damning e-mails, she’d probably still have a job — and the governor would have been spared a huge political scandal.
Right now it appears that most Snapchat photos involve sexually oriented or inappropriate poses. And the obvious use of Confide is to hide from others the existence of an affair — something that might have benefited the careers of Gen. David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell, for instance.
Yet it’s not only the bad stuff that we want to keep private. In conversations with each other, people tend to be free and easy in their remarks, testing out ideas, sometimes making ill-thought statements, but comfortable in the notion that what they are saying is in the moment, not something to be preserved for all time.
With the advent of the Internet, people tried to take that same conversational approach to their electronic communications. But the permanence of the Internet means that users are gradually realizing that everything they say can be seen by, literally, everyone. There’s no more room for mistakes. Conversations become inhibited and self-censored. The fear of saying something wrong, inappropriate, or just not-well-thought-out stifles creative give-and-take.
These new privacy apps rescue us from this, putting us in the position of saying (or showing) what we want to whom we want — and to no one else. We’ve learned that there are downsides to being connected. Sometimes I’m delighted to let you know what I’m doing. Other times, though, it’s none of your business.
Keane is a Boston Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.