Barriers within barriers

Saturday 26th Mar 2011

Continuing to think about privacy and how software treats your data, I was wondering about things like Gmail and Dropbox, and how ‘your stuff’ is managed on the iPad and similar, and how software takes an apparently militant binary view of what is public and what is private.

I use Dropbox and Gmail all the time, and both contain a mass of data that comes from different aspects of my life. Gmail contains both some of the first messages I exchanged with my partner, some deeply personal conversations with family members, but also a load of business correspondence, receipts, order acknowledgements and many conversations with friends. Similarly, Dropbox contains the working copies of several projects, stuff for my sites, shared files on various projects with colleagues, a load of personal scribblings, sketches, family photos, found images and books, PDFs and saved pages. Neither service gives me any option to separate those collections, those facets of my life, from each other, and I think they should.

The need for some kind of extra ‘barrier’ becomes more apparent on something like the iPad, where there’s a crossover between the private and the shared. It is (as many have noted) a personal computer, but one you’re likely to hand to someone else to play with an app or read something. If they opened up the Photo app they could see all your images, if they open up Email, they’d see all your emails, if they open up Dropbox… you get the idea. As a default, it’s certainly not a bad one, but I’d like for all these things just to specify that, say, emails tagged with ‘Bank’ or pictures in the ‘Family’ album have some kind of restriction, anything from a simple warning to full-on password protection.

Of course, adding something like this would also be useful if you’ve a load of porn stashed on your iPad, Dropbox or laptop, which in any discussion of privacy is the elephant in the room everyone is apparently too damn coy to point out. Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) matter. I’m pretty damn sure that for each and every individual there are things they want to keep somewhere accessible but don’t want to share, regardless of whether it’s eyewateringly hardcore pornography or a fondness for the music of Justin Bieber. Not every part of our lives is equally public or equally private, and software, for crying out loud, should accept and support that.

* I should point out I have nothing against Mr Bieber, or his eyewateringly hardcore pornography.