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Privacy vs. Technology

September 4, 2011

The right and availability of privacy is in a state of great flux. Technological, legal and cultural forces are all powerfully impacting the way we view privacy and the amount of privacy we expect to get in society. I have already discussed how the twin pseudo-wars are pushing the government toward gathering more information about American citizens. I think another interesting story to tell is how new technology is impacting our expectations of and capacity for privacy.

What ought to be done is a subset of what can be done. If you say that someone ought to do something, that moral statement is meaningless if they do not have the capacity to perform the action. Similarly, to assert that someone has a right to something implies that society can be organized in a way that prevents people from violating that right. Norms can be a common pool resource. If people can easily and stealthily violate the norm and personally benefit, they will likely do so, even if they themselves benefit from the norm being enforced overall. Eventually, as more and more people violate the norm, the norm will fall apart. Enforcing a societal norms, such as privacy, requires the ability to detect violations and to punishment the violator. Privacy supporters often treat privacy that can be simply advocated into being, however, outcomes depend on a contest between technologies that make privacy more difficult and those that make it easier.

Technologies that make privacy more difficult
Online satellite maps – provide pictures of everyone’s house and business, as well as “Street View” controversies.

Facial Recognition – combined with augmented vision contact lenses could provide real time information about people you see walking down the street, including criminal records or other personal information available online. While online medical records are now only available for people who chose to sign up for such a product, how much longer before someone hacks one of the databases and posts it all online? It is not unimaginable that within a decade, the majority of people have publicly available medical histories.
(Update: I wrote this before Google announced Google Glass, but that just reinforces the point)

Miniaturization of cameras, including cell phone cameras, which allow omnipresent recording.

Social Networking – People voluntarily put tons of what would formerly be considered private data online.

Dissemination of Data – Information wants to be free. Wikileaks, torrents, and Twitter (among many other technologies) have changed the nature of the spread knowledge. Now, if something is important and one person knows it, pretty soon everyone knows it. It is nearly impossible for anyone to stop access to data that is on the internet without totally disabling the internet entirely.

Spyware activated webcams – Schools take secret pictures of students using laptop cameras.

I don’t want to say that I predict that increases in technology will always be in the direction of lowering the amount of privacy in the world, but it is likely that privacy reducing technologies will overwhelm privacy increasing technologies in the near future.

Privacy is often discussed as if it is an unalloyed good, but it is not. For example, cases of police brutality have increased lately by about 25% from 2001 to 2007. I don’t think the actual rate has increased by nearly that amount, but I think the rate of people reporting it has increased dramatically. Police have probably destroyed evidence of brutality for a long time, but now camera phones and the internet have made that a lot more difficult for them. Recently a court ruled that people have a 1st Amendment right to film police when they are in public areas performing their duties. If the ruling is upheld, it will make it much more difficult for police to use excessive force and get away with it. Similarly, Wikileaks has made it more difficult for semi-open governments to hide their questionable deeds. Fully totalitarian states will likely be able to cope, simply by outlawing the internet, but states where the citizenry is free enough to access the web will be able to gather much information about their governments.

Lack of privacy will disincentivize embarrassing behavior. If you know an affair will become public knowledge, you probably won’t do it to begin with. Unfortunately that will put a chilling effect on behaviors which are harmless but subject to disapprobation from the majority of society. Lack of privacy hurts cultural minorities who rely on privacy to cover actions from cultural majority. There is a tradeoff between tolerance and privacy. If everyone in society adopts liberal social views, no one will need to have privacy, because there will be no disapproval for them to avoid. I think society is moving quite quickly in this direction, although to my tastes, not quickly enough. Perhaps it is impossible to say if the changes will be for good or ill. We certainly live in interesting times.

Other links:
Top threats to civil liberties
Alex Tabarrock comments on Korean Bounty Hunters
Cloud powered facial recognition
On Google.
FBI uses facial recognition to register non-criminals into a database.
Social mores adjust to fit the level of privacy we expect.
The Man with the Google Glasses
Biometrics make life difficult for undercover agents
Insect-sized Spy drones
Scott Adams comments
Is the scope of Government driven by technology?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. September 5, 2011 11:54 pm

    I agree, but I think people still have clear limits on what invasions of privacy they will and will not allow. I’m interested to see how this incident turns out (a woman is suing because a software tracking company tracking a stolen computer took pictures of her sex chats). I think there is definitely a line that people believe technology shouldn’t be able to cross.

    In addition, there’s a gap between what’s allowed by private companies and what’s allowed by the government. I think that perhaps laws will adapt to limit what a private company should and should not be able to do, privacy-wise. There still seems to be huge backlash whenever a company oversteps a line, and it’s possible the government will establish regulations to limit just how much technology can invade privacy.


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