The end of practical obscurity

by | Tuesday, August 05, 2008

There is a somewhat troubling story in NYTimes a couple of days ago: (If You Run a Red Light, Will Everyone Know?) about, a free service that lets people search by name through criminal archives of all 50 states and 3,500 counties in the United States! This is part of a growing trend of how technology removes / erodes people’s privacy. The creators of the system argue that they are doing nothing wrong, and that this information was always available anyway. “We are just trying to provide what’s already out there in an easier fashion, for free,” Mr. Lane said. “We think it’s pretty helpful to families.” However the potential for misuse is huge.

An important weakness is that the data at some level is inconsistent and suspect. Not the least because jurisdictions vary a great deal in what they records they maintain. Some track traffic violations while others do not. Moreover there are many errors in these databases as well and already some evidence that freely available information (that was once much harder to obtain) has been used in illegal ways. For instance,

A recent investigation at the Justice Department demonstrates how once-obscure, now easily accessible public information can be abused in egregious ways. The investigative report by the department’s inspector general and internal ethics office said government lawyers mined sites like and, which report on individual political contributions, to discover political affiliations of job candidates.

If you find all this more than a bit scary, that’s not surprising. But welcome to this new world of information – a world where information that was hard to get at is now easily available. The NYTimes article reminded me of two phrases that can help us understand the change that is occurring here, and these are “practical obscurity” v.s. “ambient findability” (a term popularized by findability expert Peter Morville, and introduced to me by Leigh Wolf).

As the article says, “Academics have a term for the old inaccessibility of records like those for criminal convictions: ‘practical obscurity.’ Once upon a time, people in search of this data had to hire private investigators to navigate byzantine courthouses and rudimentary filing or computer systems, and to deal with often grim-faced legal clerks… In a way, the obstacles to getting criminal information maintained a valuable, ignorance-fueled civil peace. Convicts could start fresh after serving their time without strangers knowing their pasts, and there was little risk that unsophisticated researchers could confuse people with identical names.”

This idea of “practical obscurity” is increasingly being replaced by the idea of “ambient findability” which Peter Morville, describes as “a world at the crossroads of ubiquitous computing and the Internet in which we can find anyone or anything from anywhere at anytime.”

Practical obscurity v.s. Ambient findability… Hmmm…

Topics related to this post: Good | Bad Design | News | Politics | Representation | Technology | Worth Reading

A few randomly selected blog posts…

Pi(e) day, 2019

Pi(e) day, 2019

A design created in celebration of Pi-day, 2019. (More context about the day here and more about the number itself here). As always, the OofSI team celebrates Pi(e) day by offering a selection of Pi(e)'s - exactly at 1:59 PM. Totally irrational I know! Apart from...

Visual wit

I just stumbled upon this website of witty and original t-shirt designs. Two of my favorites are "Experimental music" (included below) and "Puzzled Putter." You can see all the designs here.

The Deep-Play Group & our robotic overlords

The Deep-Play Group & our robotic overlords

The Deep-Play research group started as an informal group of faculty and graduate students at Michigan State University, mostly my advisees. It has now grown to include Arizona State University and a couple of people there. Of course my advisees...

2017 Torrance Lecture on Creativity

2017 Torrance Lecture on Creativity

This past April, I delivered the annual E. Paul Torrance Lecture at the University of Georgia. Being invited to give this talk was a huge honor, for two main reasons. First, because of Paul Torrance, the person for whom this lecture is named. Dr. Torrance, known...

Modeling & Play as cognitive tools: 2 new articles

The next article in our series Rethinking Technology & Creativity in the 21st Century is out. Sadly there is an error in the title of the paper. The paper explores the idea of play as a key trans-disciplinary habit of mind often used by creative people across...

Dewey, back from the dead

I just got this email from the Cognitive Science program at MSU inviting me for their weekly cognitive forum. Turns out the speaker this week is someone called John Dewey! For a moment I thought Dewey was back with us 🙂 The title of his talk is "How do we know when...

Creativity ambigram

Here's a new ambigram I designed at the kick-off for the MSU Creativity Initiative. I will have more information on that in a later post but for now... enjoy. Creativity, any which way you look at it.

Bye bye textbooks, buy buy laptops

Reuters story titled Technology reshapes America's classrooms. Couple of quotes worth noting: "Why would we ever buy a book when we can buy a computer? Textbooks are often obsolete before they are even printed," said Debra Socia, principal of the school in Dorchester,...

TPACK is top story on eSchool News

I just discovered that TPACK made the Top Story of the Week for Educators on eSchool News! Written by Laura Devaney, Senior Editor of eSchoolNews the article is titled, TPACK explores effective ed-tech integration. It is a pretty comprehensive piece with quotes from...


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *