When I wasn’t trying to solve the fiendishly difficult Easter Clue Hunt my kids set for us, I spent a pleasant hour or two re-discovering the original wiki, started by Ward Cunningham in 1995. It still feels fun and anarchic and useful. Another day I will start a rant on what is and isn’t a wiki .. but meanwhile … one thing that struck me is that the community policy is Real Names Please. This seems to run counter to standard Internet sociology. What many people love about the Internet is that nobody knows you are a dog. On the other hand, maybe hiding behind anonymity is what leads to the nastier sides of the internet, like trolling. I note that I just made a couple of wikipedia links there. Now the folks that edit wikipedia are by and large a sane and well behaved community, but most usernames have almost no information, or little that tells you whether to trust this particular editor. I can see that one wants to avoid things getting personal, but its far too easy to make sock-puppets.
My instinct is that openness and transparency is good. I always sign my referees reports. (So if you just got a mean one that you suspect is me, it isn’t!!) On the other hand, from various experiences of friends and colleagues, I am well aware that sometimes you need privacy. And of course we need the possibility to blow that whistle without the secret police knocking on the door etc. But how common is all that? Enough. Lets do a poll thingy. Which of these is closest to your opinion?
Last week on the way to an AstroGrid meeting in Cambridge I picked up a hire car at Stansted Airport and was asked for my fingerprint. Sorry. Correction. I was told I must give my fingerprint. No choice here. Apparently in an experimental scheme with Essex Police, ALL the hire car companies at Stansted were doing this; and Europcar have now rolled it out across the UK. I am surprised I haven’t heard more fuss. The BBC website discussed this back in November, and there has a small amount of blogging on it, e.g. here.
As usual on this kind of issue, I had two conflicting instincts. Thought-1 was “This is awful. The police state is creeping up on us. The People must rise up !”. Thought-2 was “Lets not be Canute here. Like Scott McNeally said, you have no privacy, get used to it.” Not sure which thought wins.
But internal curiosity welled up. Thought-3 was “Why is this so mentally confusing ? What’s really going on ?”. I suddenly remembered how back in the early 80s a Polish friend would explain that where she came from one person in every five was a policeman or police informer, and how this eroded society from the inside. Its about trust, and its about power. OK, so I am an innocent man, so I have “nothing to fear”. Giving my fingerprint is a good thing. This is clearly true as long as you trust the government. Well right now to be honest, by and large, I do. But if I was in the USA, I would be much more nervous.
But … why should I trust Europcar ??????
When I asked the right questions, they offered me the choice of blacking out my print when I returned the car. So I did. But this choice was not offered until I asked. And the pictures I see on the web suggest that most sites are automatically digitising the print rather than saving it on a piece of card, so this option has no safe meaning.
Maybe I should write to the CEO of Europcar and ask if he would please provide me his fingerprint for my records ? After all he is an innocent man, so he has nothing to fear. And I would promise to not doing anything with this information unless I suspected Europcar of a crime of some kind….