[Reader-list] You Can Surf, but You Can't Hide
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Tue Feb 12 15:04:14 IST 2002
The New York Times
February 7, 2002
You Can Surf, but You Can't Hide
By LISA GUERNSEY
Steve Kagan for The New York Times
PHOTO: Dr. James Herbsleb studied an instant- messaging system used
by Lucent employees. Ordinary cellphones can be used to keep track of
where people are and, in some cases, what they are doing.
MAKING a phone call has always been a game of chance. You never know
whether the person you are calling is available. You just punch in
the numbers and hope to get lucky.
Imagine being able to learn without dialing a single digit whether
another person's phone is in use, or in the case of a cellphone,
whether it is even turned on. Now imagine being able to do the same
thing with any wired or wireless device of the future - whether it is
in the car, in an airplane or at the gym. Not only could you learn
whether a person is available for a chat, but you could also deduce
what that person might be doing at that exact moment, all without
exchanging a word.
That is the idea behind a programming concept called presence
awareness, which is based on the realization that appliances on a
network can automatically be detected by other devices.
"The days of phone tag are on the way out," said Sonu Aggarwal, chief
executive of Cordant, a company in Bellevue, Wash., that develops
instant-messaging technology. "This is a very powerful concept with
long- term implications."
Many software developers predict that presence technology will become
almost as ubiquitous as communication devices themselves. In six
months, Motorola (news/quote) officials say, the company will roll
out a system that will allow a caller to tell whether another
person's mobile phone is on and whether it is in use. Nokia
(news/quote) and Ericsson (news/quote), among several other
telecommunications companies, are also developing the technology, for
use in either land-line or wireless phones.
Presence technology is also being considered for hand-held computers,
wireless Web pads, communications systems in cars, and even exercise
machines that provide Internet access at the gym. Some systems, the
officials say, will go as far as using tracking systems like the
Global Positioning System, or G.P.S., to detect the location of a
person who is logged in.
The prospect of information that can reveal a person's availability
at a given moment, anywhere in the world strikes many people as both
creepy and intriguing.
Katelyn Y. A. McKenna, an assistant professor at New York University
who conducts research on Internet relationships, has found that
people are comforted when they can see the distant movements of
people from their inner circles, like family and friends. Devices
that use presence technology could provide such reassurance.
"You could see that you could instantaneously reach these people if
you need them," Dr. McKenna said. "I know my mother would be
extremely reassured if she could see, `Oh, she's off the plane; her
cellphone came on; she's landed.' "
But along with comfort comes the unnerving feeling of being watched,
a lesson that has been experienced by millions of instant messaging
users. By keeping track of the activity on their Buddy Lists, people
with I.M. can use log-in information to get a sense of their buddies'
routines - when they arrive at work, when they are online at home on
a weekend, or in some cases how long they have been away from their
computers. Information that was private (or at least not easy to
acquire) can become known - with little effort - by employers,
co-workers, friends, family members and, sometimes, by strangers.
"When you have these technologies you really expose yourself and your
day to a lot of people," said Bonnie A. Nardi, an anthropologist at
Agilent Technologies (news/quote), a company in Palo Alto, Calif.,
that makes high-tech monitoring devices.
After spending a few years studying instant messaging, Dr. Nardi said
she became aware of the subtle impact of presence technology on
people's lives. It is time, she said, to think about "what we want
people to know about what we are doing at a given moment."
Software programmers and executives have begun talking about how to
capitalize on presence technology's potential. For example, at
Dynamicsoft, a company in East Hanover, N.J., officials have
discussed how presence software, wireless hand-held computers and
G.P.S. tracking could alert a person when a friend happened to be a
few blocks away. A phone-based system could also automatically plug
in teleconference participants the instant everyone in the group was
In the future, Mr. Aggarwal of Cordant said, technology might be so
integrated that a traveler could wear a wireless badge that interacts
with a computer on the back of an airplane seat. When the computer
sensed that the traveler was seated, it could automatically redirect
messages to the computer's screen or send word to the traveler's
contacts that he was on board.
The only widely available version of the technology currently in use
is instant messaging. If I.M.'s popularity is any indication, people
may be ready to embrace the possibilities of presence detection.
More than 50 million people in the United States use
instant-messaging products today, according to industry estimates,
and many of those people say that their favorite aspect of the
technology is the ability to see whether a buddy is online.
Still, even some of the technology's adherents acknowledge how
strange it is to remotely broadcast their whereabouts. Mr. Aggarwal
uses MSN Messenger, which displays a clock icon in the contact list
to indicate when a person has not touched the keyboard or mouse for,
say, five minutes. As soon as he resumes use of his keyboard or
mouse, the clock goes away. Often, he said, he gets a phone calls the
minute he hits the keys, and the caller is invariably someone who had
been waiting for that icon to disappear.
"Without my being aware, people are watching me," Mr. Aggarwal said.
Hints of a coming struggle between privacy and openness turned up in
a recent project at Bell Labs, the research and development arm of
Lucent Technologies (news/quote). In the project, which was called
Rear View Mirror, a scientist, Dr. James Herbsleb, and several
colleagues studied a group of Lucent employees in American and
European offices who used a Bell Labs instant messaging system for
more than a year. Privacy issues arose from the start.
"Some people in Germany said, `This looks like a surveillance tool
for us,' " Dr. Herbsleb said.
He added that they did not like the idea that supervisors could
detect - and therefore monitor - exactly how long they had been
online and how much time they had spent typing on their keyboards.
As a result, Bell Labs researchers altered the software to give users
complete control. The program's default options were set to make
users appear to be offline. If people wanted co-workers to know they
had logged in, they had to turn on the feature that displayed their
That solution did not work very well, Dr. Herbsleb said. The
software, which was intended to avoid problems like phone tag, was
useless if people had to badger colleagues to announce their
availability. Besides, he said, it missed the point of presence
technology, which is useful precisely because it senses what is going
on without any action by a user.
Ultimately, the researchers and employees compromised. The presence
system was automatically turned on for people within small work
groups. People outside those groups had to get colleagues' permission
to watch their movements. "Don't allow people to just lurk and spy,"
Dr. Herbsleb said.
But as staying in touch electronically becomes the mark of modern
movers and shakers, many people say they will gladly allow their
presence to be known in exchange for the convenience of constant
contact. "It's sort of like leaving the front door open, and saying,
`Come on in; don't even knock,' " said David Wertheimer, who writes a
daily Web log called Netwert and is an avid user of instant messaging
Software developers say they can design presence awareness systems to
accommodate both those who seek privacy and those who want constant
contact. Yahoo (news/quote) and Microsoft (news/quote), for example,
include privacy features in their instant messaging products. Users
must grant permission before their names can be added to someone's
contact list. Instant Messenger, both the stand-alone version and the
one embedded in AOL's Internet service, does not allow that level of
control. Users have no way of knowing whether someone has added their
screen names to a buddy list.
Michele Magazine, a publishing consultant in Manhattan who briefly
used the Instant Messenger program from America Online, said she was
troubled by the lack of privacy. "I don't want people to know when
I'm at home," she said. "There was no way to hide."
Whether people will use permission features or other blocking tools
is another question. Social pressure can be a powerful disincentive.
Some teenagers who use instant messaging programs, for example, said
they would not block their peers because they would not want to seem
Consider something like the following alert showing up on your
screen: "Bill wants to put you on his buddy list. Do you accept?" If
Bill is merely a distant acquaintance, and you decline, will it look
like a snub? Suppose your girlfriend can tell that you are in your
office, using your computer but not your phone. If she decides to
call and you don't answer, she may think: "Why not? Clearly you are
available. Are you ignoring me?"
The Internet Engineering Task Force, the group that develops
standards for Internet communication, has been thinking about several
such implications, according to the engineers involved. One of them
is Jonathan Rosenberg, chief scientist for Dynamicsoft and a
co-author of the task force's standards for presence and instant
Dr. Rosenberg has come up with an answer for the social dilemma of
managing privacy without appearing rude. His idea is appropriately
called polite blocking, and it works something like a little white
lie. Users could appear to be busy with phone calls when, in fact,
they might be blissfully enjoying a few minutes of solitude.
There is another alternative, of course: People could extricate
themselves from the technology often enough to keep their contacts
guessing. A contact may determine that someone's mobile phone is on -
and it very well may be, but it may also be sitting at home.
"Until we get to the bioimplant," said Craig Peddie, who works on
presence technology at Motorola, "we won't be able to know that you
really have it with you."
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