The myth of technological ‘solutions’

A story on the BBC webpages caught my eye this morning: ‘the parcel conundrum‘. It described a scenario that must be familiar to almost everyone in the UK: you order something on the internet and then the delivery people mess up the delivery and all you end up with is a little note on the floor saying they tried to deliver it. Frustration, anger and disappointment ensue…

…so what is the ‘solution’? Well, if you read the article, we’re going to solve the problems with technology! The new, whizz-bang solutions are going to not just track the parcels, but track us, so they can find us and deliver the parcel direct to us, not to our unoccupied homes. They’re going to use information from social networking sites to discover where we are, and when they find us they’re going to use facial recognition software to ensure they deliver to the right person. Hurrah! No more problems! All our deliveries will be made on time, with no problems at all. All we have to do is let delivery companies know exactly where we are at all times, and give them our facial biometrics so they can be certain we are who we are.

Errr… could privacy be an issue here?

I was glad to see that the BBC did at least mention privacy in passing in their piece – even if they did gloss over it pretty quickly – but there are just one or two privacy problems here. I’ve blogged before about the issues relating to geo-location (here) but remember delivery companies often give 12 hour ‘windows’ for a delivery – so you’d have to let yourself be tracked for a long time to get the delivery. And your facial biometrics – will they really hold the information securely? Delete it when you’re found? Delivery companies aren’t likely to be the most secure or even skilled of operators (!) and their employees won’t always be exactly au fait with data protection etc – let alone have been CRB checked. It would be bad enough to allow the police or other authorities track us – but effectively unregulated businesses to do so? It doesn’t seem very sensible, to say the least…

…and of course under the terms of the Communications Data Bill (of which more below) putting all of this on the Internet will automatically mean it is gathered and retained for the use of the authorities, creating another dimension of vulnerability…

Technological solutions…

There is, however, a deeper problem here: a tendency to believe that a technological solution is available to a non-technological problem. In this case, the problem is that some delivery companies are just not very good – it may be commercial pressures, it may be bad management policies, it may be that they don’t train their employees well enough, it may be that they simply haven’t thought through the problems from the perspective of those of us waiting for deliveries. They can, however, ‘solve’ these problems just by doing their jobs better. A good delivery person is creative and intelligent, they know their ‘patch’ and find solutions when people aren’t in. They are organised enough to be able to predict their delivery times better. And so on. All the tracking technology and facial recognition software in the world won’t make up for poor organisation and incompetent management…

…and yet it’s far too easy just to say ‘here’s some great technology, all your problems will be solved’.

We do it again and again. We think the best new digital cameras will turn us into fantastic photographers without us even reading the manuals or learning to use our cameras (thanks the the excellent @legaltwo for the hint on that one!). We think ‘porn filters’ will sort out our parenting issues. We think web-blocking of the Pirate Bay will stop people downloading music and movies illegally. We think technology provides a shortcut without dealing with the underlying issue – and without thinking of the side effects or negative consequences. It’s not true. Technology very, very rarely ‘solves’ these kinds of problems – and the suggestion that it does is the worst kind of myth.

The Snoopers’ Charter

The Draft Communications Data Bill – the Snoopers’ Charter – perpetuates this myth in the worst kind of way. ‘If only we can track everyone’s communications data, we’ll be able to stop terrorism, catch all the paedos, root out organised crime’… It’s just not true – and the consequences to everyone’s privacy, just a little side issue to those pushing the bill, would be huge, potentially catastrophic. I’ve written about it many times before – see my submission to the Joint Committee on Human Rights for the latest example – and will probably end up writing a lot more.

The big point, though, is that the very idea of the bill is based on a myth – and that myth needs to be exposed.

That’s not to say, of course, that technology can’t help – as someone who loves technology, enjoys gadgets and spends a huge amount of his time online, that would be silly. Technology, however, is an adjunct, not a substitute, to intelligent ‘real world’ solutions, and should be clever, targeted and appropriate. It should be a rapier rather than a bludgeon.

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This entry was posted in data retention, Identity, Parenting, Privacy, surveillance. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The myth of technological ‘solutions’

  1. the ghost says:

    A nice little earner for pensioners or home workers,delivery companies hire a spare room say for £20 a week, customers pay house owner £1 on delivery,spread across the country should not have to travel more than a mile in a city/town

  2. Pavlos says:

    The true problem here is that retail in the UK *sucks*. It may perform well as a business sector, at least compared with other sectors of the economy that are dead, but it doesn’t serve consumers. There are too few chains controlling too much of supply, high rents make independent stores unviable, and the UK public has come to accept clueless sales staff, low quality, and lack of choice. The result: Unless you want one of the handful of brands and products being actively marketed, going shopping in the UK is an exercise in frustration.

    That’s why people order so many packages in the first place. To fix the problem, reform retail to offer a proper, worthwhile, shopping experience and choice. If it’s not practical to compete with the scale of online shopping, let the high street stores partner with Amazon or someone and offer a pre-sales, delivery and early ownership experience to the customer.

  3. tomslee says:

    Excellent points. Reminds me of this paper about the same phenomenon in a development context: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2045556

  4. Pingback: My snoopers’ charter posts… « Paul Bernal's Blog

  5. Naresh Patel says:

    Yes, True! The retail sector needs significant improvement specially in the developing countries.

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