Posted by: Clive | August 4, 2008

More thoughts on privacy

Privacy is dead?

Privacy is dead?

In my last post here (In a street near you) I talked about the ways in which Google has been challenged in its attempt to provide a street view mapping service through panoramic photographic images stitched together over a geographical grid. Privacy groups opposed the project on the grounds that it infringed the public’s right to go about their business in public places without being photographed for commercial gain. Google has won out, the vans are on the streets and privacy concerns have been assuaged. I’ve been thinking on this a little more particularly around the following questions:

  • What is our sense of privacy and where does it come from?
  • Is it really under threat and if so, what can we do about it?

Let me see if I can offer some answers.

Arguably, the sense of privacy common today is a fairly recent phenomenon in the West and limited to particular social contexts. My own grandmother told me stories of growing up in the 1920s where public knowledge pushed right into the living rooms (and bedrooms) of her community. I remember living in a small village in Northern Nigeria where everybody knew everybody else’s every move. It wasn’t as if everyone was scrutinized (though at times some people were), just that in the fabric of village life every individual thread was visible. In Cuba, things were similar, though with an added ‘edge’: the neighbourhood was organised for mutual busy-bodying with the explicit aim of defending community (and national) norms. In both these contexts my understanding that ‘my doings were my business’ and not the stuff of public knowledge or scrutiny, was deeply challenged.

This understanding of privacy may also be thought of as a fairly short-lived ‘blip’ in the ways public knowledge, community and privacy are enmeshed. In so many ways, and in particular in the way of privacy, my grandmother’s experiences were radically different from my own. It was fairly easy for me through my teens and early adulthood to think of my doings being my business and, for various reasons, easier to practice a degree of anonymity. Of course I was aided by the beginnings of a new geographical and social mobility. However, and I think more significantly, my anonymity was practiced before the advent of digitization and the internet when the possibilities of collecting, aggregating and collating the little bits of information that chart a life was difficult. Only select individuals could be monitored in detail and the task of surveillance of a wider community was beyond the resources of even the wealthiest states. This is no longer the case. The digitized database has put paid to that. It is now cheaper and easier to collect and collate information on individuals than ever – and it is getting cheaper to the point of zero-cost. Cameras in stores, on roads, in city centres and on university campuses together with debit/credit card details, index our lives as never before.

The legitimacy of this collection and collation rests on the notion that what we do in public or with third parties is not private. Driving on a public road, shopping in the Trafford Centre, sitting in Piccadilly Gardens, walking through Campus, buying petrol, surfing the internet are not ‘private’ acts but part of the public domain. The ease of collecting and collating such acts has led to the notion that their indexing is therefore legitimate. This is the hub of the problem and it has yet to be fully addressed. Is the collation of all those small details of a life (all the videos I’ve ever rented, all the food I’ve ever bought at Sainsbury, every journey I’ve made on public roads, books I’ve borrowed from the public library, web sites I’ve surfed …) simply a step too far? Does it represent illegitimate surveillance? Is it an infringement on my privacy?

Legally, it seems that the answer is no – unless proved otherwise and after the event. The Data Protection Act in the UK requires (with some exceptions) that any third party company holding information on you (camera image, financial details, audio recordings of telephone conversations, notes of face-to-face meetings, financial transactions etc.) make that information available at your request. That transparency is good in principle but less effective in practice: once the information is indexed, its use and whatever needs it responded to have more than likely been met by the time you can get your hands on it. To believe that the Act has returned some lost sense of privacy in the age of digital indexing is naïve. It’s also naïve to think that by reverting to cash, tearing up loyalty cards and giving up surfing the net, we can once more protect our privacy.

It seems to me that the only solution to this, and here we can use the web as a platform, is citizen activism that constantly demands increased transparency in who indexes the data, who accesses it and for what purposes. If we accept that the kinds of privacy that I enjoyed during the brief ‘blip’ between my grandmother’s growing up and my own early adulthood, then we really need to keep the pressure on in order to at least claim transparency.

But will it happen? The omens are not good. Despite the scare stories of Oxbridge students disciplined over their Facebook antics or YouTubers activities monitored by the police, there is little evidence that people actually care about protecting their privacy. In some realms it seems that the opposite is true. The flaunting of the private in the public domain is now almost epidemic: in a culture where the private validates the public (whether on Big Brother, the X-Factor or with a Labour MP’s struggle with bulimia) it can seem that privacy can only be legitimised if public(ised). My parents’ comments on such public display of privateness are instructive of the sea change that has happened: “they know no shame” is my mother’s response to the antics of the Big Brother contestants. In one sense she’s right. That concept has become redundant. And because shame feeds privacy, once we lose one, we lose an interest in the other.

At the same time as calls for transparency from those actively collecting data about us, however we must be aware of some of the moral dilemmas surrounding access to data and the right to know. Should we have a right to access information from the Sex Offenders Register to establish whether anybody on it lives in our neighbourhood? Megan’s Law, passed a decade ago in the US famously said yes, and from that site you can search the sex offender registries of the states where it is public. The UK is following (slowly) suit with a watered-down version of Megans Law being piloted at the moment. In another development launched last month a site in Sacramento, US offers criminal records surveys:

Now it’s possible to check on a potential baby-sitter, date, or prospective employee. Curious about the strange looking bloke across the road? Lets check if he has a criminal record … Driven by contextual advertising (I wonder if it is delivered by Google?) keeps its disclaimer in small print at the bottom of the page when it should be required reading. In both of these examples we see a sensitive social balance that was achieved by the simple difficulty of accessing such information being tested by the ease of access afforded by technology.

An interesting case has just appeared closer to home that may test my pessimism on the question of whether we actually will pressurise for more transparency from those holding data on us. Six major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the UK have agreed to send letters to computer users deemed by logs of their downloading behavior to be serial music file sharers. There’s a lot of vary suspect logic and technological masking here (and much more pressure from the music industry and government worried about Treasury tax gains) but what will be interesting is the reaction from those who do receive such letters. Will they desist? Will they reply with a one-finger wave and “know no shame”? Will they mount a series of attacks on the ISPs? Will they create their own ISPs? Or will they begin a movement of citizen action that demands access to the kinds of data used to demonstrate exactly what they download and when?

Could that begin a wider movement to debate issues of privacy in a networked world? Music downloading could serve a worse function.


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