Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

That's Creepy
But He's Creepier

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, February 26, 2013 --  

Human nature makes people untrusting of new technology. This often isn't justified.

Faced with a new technology that you find unsettling, one phrase jumps immediately to mind: "That's creepy." Anyone who has used Google to search for products to buy often spends the next few weeks looking at the exact same products in advertisements on web pages. Slightly higher on the creepy scale is Facebook's use of facial recognition to automatically tag photos. It illicited such a "creep" response that it was suspended before quietly being re-instated for American users last month.1

History shows that people are psychologically disturbed by new technologies where machines know things about them. The cycle of outrage to eventual acceptance has been repeated many times over the past two decades. People were initially afraid of giving their credit cards to Internet retailers. They were then wary of letting supermarket scanners see their discount cards to track their purchases. And today people are still disturbed by the use of GPS, cell phone signals and WiFi to track where people are at different times.

These fears say more about human psychology than they do about technology. In every one of these cases, there are common equivalents in human interaction that don't give people a second thought.

How many people do you know who are reluctant to use a credit card online, but quickly hand the exact same card to a complete stranger in a restaurant? What is that waiter doing with your credit card in another room for ten minutes? Is he simply charging your restaurant bill, or is he copying your numbers down or using a skimmer device to sell it to a fraud network? Humans see the waiter's smiling face and they are inclined to trust. Yet there is ample evidence that this is one of the most common sources of credit card fraud.2

Just as humans can steal your credit card information, they can also invade your privacy. Those who are wary of using discount cards at supermarkets would be wise to think back to the days of the general store, where the same man stood behind the cash register to look at your every purchase. Think he didn't notice or remember the adult diapers or prophalactics, or pornography that you slid across the counter? Think again. At least in the case of the supermarket computer, it probably doesn't care.

The same human equivalents exist with tracking technologies. The terms "spy" and "stalker" were coined long before GPS-equipped smartphones to describe creepy people who would determine your location the old-fashioned way -- by following you around. And when it comes to facial-recognition technology, no computer can compete with the human brain. That nosy Gladys Kravitz next door surely knows who is repeatedly coming in and out of your house in the wee hours of the night.

In each of these cases, the real creep factor always belongs squarely with our untrustworthy human associates and not with technology. Yet people are much more likely to assume the worst when a computer stands between them and others.

Relatively speaking, people are rubes when it comes to dealing with human strangers, and utterly paranoid when it comes to dealing with technology. Why so? Perhaps because humans rely heavily on visual cues when dealing with a stranger to determine whether they are trustworthy. In a study last year, researchers found that students paying a "trust game" had difficulty predicting others trustworthiness when they were not face to face.3 Removing personal interaction not only reduces the ability to measure trustworthiness, it actually leads to a decline in trust. A different research team found trust declined in coworker relationships when interaction was solely through email and other electronic means.4 The same effect probably applies at least as much when dealing technology anonymously.

The problem is that trust and lack of trust isn't always justified. As the "trust game" study showed, people were often hurt both by mistakenly trusting those they should not and mistakenly not trusting those they should. The risk of such misjudgments is especially high when it comes to technology, both because of the lack of visual trust clues and the resulting trust bias against it.

Understanding this won't change human nature. People will always tend to mistrust technology, especially when it is new. But those of us who realize these biases can use it for our benefit, and the lesson is clear: give technology a chance, and never forget that the real creep could be a person looking you right in the eye.

Full Disclosure: The author is an employee of Radius Networks which develops WiFi tracking technology.


1. Chicago Tribune, The Photo Tag is Back on Facebook, February 14, 2013

2. New York Daily News, Smith & Wollensky Steakhouse Waiters Busted in $600,000 Credit Card Scam, November 18, 2011

3. New York Times, Who's Trustworthy? A Robot Can Help Teach Us, September 10, 2012

4. Science News, Relying Too Much On E-Mail Bad for Business, Study Says, June 17, 2010