Whither privacy?

There’s a new article on privacy vis-a-viz Google maps, this time from a journal for security professionals. The issue is four-fold: the amount of georeferenced data on the web allows your name to be attached to your house; the increased scale of the maps, through the satellite images, gives the viewer enormous spatial detail; that viewer isn’t necessarily you; and finally the non-linear function of the search facility may lead to unanticipated additional violations of privacy (e.g., to the work location of someone with a similar name). The main concern of the author is national security–zooming in to see the details of dams and nuclear power plants–but the concerns for the individual are more tangible.

The same week sees this article on students from John Hopkins University who, working on a course assignment, were able to gather enormous amounts of information on residents of the City of Baltimore, all from legal public sources and for practically no money. The article’s central premise is that, in the pursuit of convenience in terms of online access to information on their houses and cars, Americans have exposed themselves to invasions of privacy.

What are we to think of privacy of personal information? Some thoughts.

1. The rich will be able to protect their privacy. I’m reminded of the people in the upscale areas of NY who wanted to opt out of the book, “New York: The Photo Atlas” because it contains aerial photos of their homes, backyards, and pools. They weren’t able to remove their photos from that book. However, they have greater capacity than the less well-to-do to protect their privacy, perhaps by scrubbing unsavory details from the Internet with the help of lawyers. For an example of an early data scrubbing, see Howard Rheingold’s The Virtual Community.

2. The poor will continue to trade their privacy for access. They already fill in online surveys and allow cookies to accumulate for free email or affordable bandwidth. What else can we expect as access becomes the currency of the modern world? What’s craven is to conclude that there’s no down-side to this exchange.

3. The youth will have a very different view of privacy from adults. There are precedents since youth in some areas of the US already live with transparent backpacks and metal detectors. Youth also are creating enormous records of their lives on the Internet and with varied media such as blogs and webcams. I suspect that they’ll value far different kinds of privacy from us. For the implications of no privacy, read The Light of Other Days by the masters of a science fiction, Arthur C. Clarke and Stephen Baxter. The book presents a new device called a “WormCam,” that allows the viewer to see anyone, anywhere, at any distance and at anytime. In a world where nothing is hidden, behavior becomes extreme. Conversely, people go to any lengths to hide themselves, even to the point of losing their individual identity.

To some extent this technology makes easier problems that have always existed (e.g., cyberstalking, identity theft) and increases the vulnerability of the already vulnerable. Society and the law will be slow to adapt. However, we shouldn’t forget that people will adapt to and adapt the technology that invades their privacy.

Comments are closed.