Revisiting Privacy and Creepiness

Last year we did a series exploring the overlapping issues of privacy, identity, and anonymity. Of course the scope of these issues is huge, far more than we could cover in a few blog posts. Also, the world keeps evolving and testing any norms we have around these issues in new and more challenging ways.

One of the analogies we used in the first part of that series was that of a restaurant where the servers remembered you and your preferences. Drawing a line between offline and online universes is problematic, though. Naturally, someone is going to create a new case that will fall directly across your analogy lines.

According to an article on Grubstreet, a very upscale restaurant is using Google to research each of their guests and tailor the experience each will receive. According to the original article:

At 3:30 p.m., in the back office of Eleven Madison Park, maître d’ Justin Roller is Googling the names of every guest who will come in that night. It’s a well-known tactic of the restaurant, an effort to be as familiar as possible with the diners.

Given that the guests expect this kind of treatment, the source article makes little of the potential creepiness factor. An article about the same event in Ars Technica focuses entirely on the sense of privacy violation, however.

Speaking personally, this would fail. Roller could absolutely scrounge up plenty of information on me, and being an editor of a technology publication, one might think I’d love the novelty of this new application of the Internet. But on the contrary, I would be more likely to spear him into the ground and demand to know who told him it was my birthday. What else do you know?

One thing that, I think makes a huge difference in this case: most of the customers being Googled are probably prominent enough that they are already constantly curating their online presence. This restaurant has three Michellen stars and is not the kind of place where unknown people go for a quick bite. The multi-course dinners last for three or four hours, and having the server picked out for you based on publicly available information probably makes sense to the clientele.

However, anything that works online will be imitated until it goes horribly wrong. I think we can anticipate other businesses trying out versions of this behavior until someone finds a case where the intrusiveness is way more important than the value.

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