Big Leaky Data, Strava and Me

I’ve been working on a project lately that makes use of Strava’s API for tracking and recording your workouts. The project is called Routey lets you create high-quality prints of your runs and activities. If you’re a runner, or know a serious runner, I’d suggest giving it a look. They make great gifts!

When I saw Strava pop up in my Google News feed yesterday my first thought was it must’ve been algorithmically catering the stories based on my search history, scouring their API documentation and other things. It turns out it was not! They were legitimately in the news for an interesting reason: someone figured out you can track the habits of military personnel and suss out the location of military bases by playing with their heatmap feature.

The old adage is that no press is bad press, but I feel a bit bad for Strava in this case with the ensuing conversation that’s emerged. Most articles I’ve read correctly absolve Strava of fault here, but it’s probably not the kind of press their marketing team would intentionally seek.

This got me thinking about the way big data leaks our evolving concept of privacy. I made a quick list off the top of my head of some of the privacy-compromising ways our data can leak:

Some or many of these things probably seem obvious and therefore not a big deal. That our email addresses can tell other people things about us, for example, or perhaps even the privacy implications of our digital home assistants always listening to us. These things might seem like common sense to many.

But I think the obviousness of these things is relative and speaks to how we’ve changed our perspectives around what constitutes reasonable privacy. That’s going to change again gong forward, probably in drastic fashion, as things get more technologically advanced. I mean this in a completely non-fatalist way, but it’s inevitable and I think fighting it’s going to be ultimately futile. We’re sacrificing privacy for convenience of some measure, and whatever we consider “privacy” is going to lose that battle ten times out of ten.

It sounds dark, but privacy — at least as it’s defined today — is dead. Watching this change over the course of your life is a bit unsettling, but I’m not sure it can be fought. I’m not sure it needs to be fought, either. What constitutes an invasion of privacy today is going to be the norm for the next generation. We just need to stay on top of maintaining general awareness and education surrounding these things.

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