Need to know

The other day, driving past our local YMCA, I saw a woman crossing the street. That woman's name is such-and-such and she's 69 years old, I said to my wife.

How did I know that? I shouldn't have, but the YMCA's new identification system -- a bar code scanner -- displays the account record of the most recently authenticated patron on a screen that's visible to anybody who walks in the door. [Full story at]

It's weird what we don't teach information technologists. Programmers will passionately debate the nuances of hiding information from software components, and then proceed to build systems that display all kinds of information that people don't need to know and should not know.

This week's column is about how information, as well as entertainment, can spill out of the analog hole. Eventually we'll acquire new habits that can mitigate the problem: selective disclosure, translucency. But not until we start to teach them.

Update: Michael Gonnerman wrote to point out an error in this week's column. I said that the YMCA attendant only needs a binary Yes or No confirmation. But as Michael rightly notes, that would only validate the card. In this case identification doesn't require the display of birth date or full name, but it does require the display of the photo.

Why, he also asks, wouldn't the YMCA use a screensaver on a short idle timeout? Great question. In fact I've offered to do that for them, but only Authorized Technicians are allowed to touch the computer, they're outsourced, and my request is presumably on someone's desk.

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