Shel Israel: Awareness essential in weighing benefits of tech against loss of privacy

SIME MIA is a digital business conference supported by Knight Foundation. Below, Camila Souza, co-founder of pFunk Media and public relations manager of SIME MIA, interviews social media expert Shel Israel, one of the speakers for the event, which will be held at the New World Center in Miami Beach on Dec. 3-4. Photo credit: Brian Solis.

SIME MIA will bring together some of the world’s most innovative technologists, media executives and venture capitalists to share and build new ideas in the digital space. The event is a partnership between SIME, an industry institution in Europe, and MIA Collective, with support provided by Knight Foundation.

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Shel Israel is a writer and speaker on social media issues. He has co-authored several books with Robert Scoble, including the soon-to-be-released “The Age of Context.” We reached out to Israel and asked him a few questions about privacy today.

In your latest book, “The Age of Context: Mobile, Data, Sensors and the Future of Privacy,” you and Robert Scoble claim that technological change is inevitable and that it brings both inconveniences and opportunities. Do you think one may outweigh the other?

S.I.: One always outweighs the other. We strongly believe that the advantages to contextual technology overwhelmingly benefit people in terms of business, leisure, communications, buying, selling, safety, health and fitness, to name some. But there is a downside and that is the loss of personal privacy. We think that are ways of taking back some important pieces of it—but at the end of the day, we will have less of it and that is a steep price—but a worthwhile one when you regard the benefits.

More people rely on technology to accomplish even the most basic daily tasks. Do you think this dependency is an inconvenience or an opportunity?

S.I.: One of the ways that humans are different from other living things is that we make tools. We have been doing that since we were cave dwellers. Now our tools do amazing things because they are digital and because they are connected. Digital tools do not make us more dependent. They make us more capable.

There’s a big discussion in the news—and even within the tech community—about the issue of privacy. Are you surprised at the community’s negative reaction?

S.I.: I would not describe the collective reaction as negative, but it is most certainly concerned. People should be concerned. There are enormous trade-offs taking place. We want our Search to understand that when we type in “park,” we want a place to put our car and not a green patch with slides and swings. To do that, our devices need to know who we are, and the context of what we are doing. But who owns that data and who gets to see it?  Scoble and I are concerned about that. Aren’t you? But that does not make us negative. It makes us aware.

We all want a safer country, where athletes can run marathons on a holiday honoring patriots. We want to do it knowing that horrible things will not be done by terrorists with backpacks. So we want surveillance. We want people with cameras and digital eyewear and sensor cameras on buildings. But we don’t want the [National Security Agency] to track who we were talking with the week before an incident. There is a trade-off here between privacy and security. It is new and complex and difficult, and people need to first understand the complexity and then there should be a great deal of debate. This process has started. We hope our book adds something worthwhile to the conversation.

What role does privacy play in the trade-off between technology knowing more about you and receiving more benefits?

S.I.: In order for our technology to serve us better. It needs to know us better. The more it knows about me or you, the more accurately it can anticipate what you may want next. Otherwise, our technology will treat us all alike and we are not all alike. We are all individuals.

What gadgets can’t you live without?

S.I.: I can live without any gadget. But why would I want to?

Early registration for SIME MIA is available until Oct. 15 for $699. For more, visit