People frequently tell me that I should not disclose so much information about myself as it could potentially be used by criminals, kidnappers and the like to harm me or my family. Interestingly, it is mostly my German friends who tend to argue this point. Germans, as Americans, seem to have a skewed allocation of risk, worrying too much about unlikely risks, and being careless about others. I have German friends who seriously speak to me about the danger of being kidnapped and then go on the Autobahn and drive 130 mph without worries.
I think differently. I believe that being public about your life, disclosing your address, your location, your habits, and learning a great deal about the habits of others, is not necessarily adding risk to your life. First of all, I should clarify that I live in Spain and that I have not heard of a single recent kidnapping case in Spain. I also spend a considerable amount of time in the USA and neither have I heard about kidnappings over there. So I don't worry about kidnappings. But in Spain, as everywhere, there is common crime, and being part of the real time web makes it more likely, for example, for criminals to find out where my home is or whether I am at home or not. My home has been published in magazines, appears on Google Earth/Maps and published in my own Flickr account. So is leading a real time online life a risk? Are we safer or less safe if we frequently blog, use Twitter, Facebook, and Google Latitude? I think the web makes us safer. Even Google Latitude which shares your location in real time with others.
Recently, we were debating safety and Latitude with some friends and the comment was "well if you share your location criminals know where to mug you." But while it is true that sharing your location may occasionally add risk to your life, when people speak of dangers in life they tend to think too highly of criminality as a risk, and not about other more probable risks for which knowing your location is actually a big plus: examples having a heart attack or falling unconscious while being alone. Many people are terrified at the thought of being murdered by a stranger in their own home and sharing their location on Latitude may scare them even more. But it turns out that being murdered is an extremely unlikely event, and that even when it happens, that most people who get murdered are murdered by people they know. So sharing your location, your habits and your pictures may in some cases increase your risk profile, but overall sharing lowers your risk profile if you correlate risk to likelihood of risk.
Sharing online is like wearing a seat belt. Yes, in some cases it may strangle you, but overall it lowers your risk profile. Moreover, it is much more likely that if anyone murders you it is yourself in the form of suicide or a lethal self inflicted accident. Acute depression, drunk driving, are much more common than violent crime or murder and this is a risk for which location sharing may save your life. And not only sharing your location but simply sharing your anxieties or problems may lower your risk of actually committing suicide. So if we consider risk anything bad that may happen to you sharing your location with friends and work associates does make your life safer. In my case, for example, I do a lot of mountain biking, with friends or alone, and I always take my mobile device with Latitude. Because even if you are with friends on fast descents everyone goes his own way and going back up to search for a friend is a slow process. In 1998 I had a serious accident mountain biking and it took half an hour of me bleeding to find me. Same with skiing, I see Latitude connected to an iPhone/Blackberry/Android with GPS as a real safety tool.
Now in terms of all other risks the real time web does help avoid risks or getting into trouble. Through Facebook you can track diseases real time, you can get medical advise from friends having similar problems, with other social networks that are geared towards medical users like 23andme (I am an investor) you share your most intimate genetic information with friends, but then you can cooperate in avoiding and treating medical conditions. In general terms I have no doubt that leading a life of isolation does make the likelihood that you will have poorly treated medical problems greater than leading a very social life.
Lastly, there is Twitter. While we don't have kidnappers in Madrid we do have terrorists who occasionally blow things, and sometimes people, up. Twitter is the fastest way to get news real time on anything related to terrorism. Whenever something bad happens you see it fly through Twitter. Before Twitter you had to call 30 friends to tell them you were spared or you were well. Now it's just a Tweet away.
Bottom line? If you want to lead a safer life join the real time web.
Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: www.twitter.com/martinvars