CXO

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Imprudent exposure

Naughty pics present long-term risks

Compiled in my hotel room in Swindon, UK and dispatched via a free, and really fast, wired LAN

About 15 years ago the incidence of indecent images online had scaled to the point of being a political, legal and social concern. As a result I was asked to make technologies available that could help combat the most extreme cases involving under-age subjects, coercion of the innocent and unwilling, brutality, torture and so on.

To gain an appreciation of what society was up against I was shown a limited set of images that were so awful that, like any horror, they seem to have been burned into my memory with a branding iron. So a raft of technology was assembled and put to work. The results were more than encouraging, and after some time I moved on and the work migrated to dedicated organisations as the problem continued to grow.

On a personal level I found the experience trying and very worrying but maintained a reasonably sanguine attitude toward the activities of consenting adults in private. As far as I can see the world seems to have more or less matured to the point where the ground rules and bounds for legal and illegal porn are understood.

Today that fledging online porn industry of 15 years ago has become mammoth - far bigger than Hollywood and the music industry combined. And like all media-based industries it has adopted and adapted with technology to evolve to new levels of sophistication, with social networks now adding a new dimension.

But I was surprised at how widespread participation is among young people. I recently read a USA Today story on tech flirting via fixed and mobile social networks. It was based upon results from a survey of 1,280 teens and young adults conducted online last autumn by a Chicago-based company called Teenage Research Unlimited.

Here it was cited that 36 per cent of young women; 31 per cent of young adult men; 22 per cent of teen girls and 18 per cent of teen boys have sent or posted online nude, or semi-nude pictures or videos of themselves. And about 30 per cent of teen boys and 40 per cent of young men say they have seen nude or semi-nude images of others. The numbers for sexually explicit text and email messages are far worse of course.

The big question is: does all this matter, especially as those involved see it as no big deal? Personally I feel that the answer has to be more than 'perhaps'! At a basic level:

  • This material will most likely exist forever somewhere
  • It will propagate everywhere via the net
  • It is a big opportunity for blackmail and later embarrassment
  • Will potential/actual future employers find it?
  • Will future colleagues find it?
  • Will future employees find it?
  • Will future customers and suppliers find it?
  • How about future husbands, wives and children?
  • And how about mum and dad, aunts and uncles, grandparents etc?

The vast majority of the young people I meet and work with seem to be reasonably tech-savvy and socially aware, and I find it hard to see how people who are not would not also consider all of the above points as a big risk.

To my mind openness and networking, social or otherwise, has a big part to play in the development of future companies, institutions, societies and civilisation itself. Also, it is essential that we explore the bounds of what is possible, practical, socially and legally acceptable.

So for now I think we have to see this as a worrying social experiment of unresolved, and most likely, dubious outcome. Hopefully it won't be too damaging in the long term!

About Peter Cochrane

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.

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