Monday, April 21, 2008

Public Privacy

A friend of mine was visiting over the weekend. He's a geographer who teaches at a small liberal arts college in the Great Lakes region. He was showing my partner and I the new Street View feature in Google Earth, which allows you to literally navigate down the road as though you were driving. I mentioned that there'd been some fallout from people who had been photographed by the Google camera in ways they didn't appreciate: climbing over a fence, picking their nose, or even just being photographed someplace where they oughtn't to have been at that moment (skipping a day of work, for instance). And my friend said that in our modern surveillance environment, he thought that we had no expectation of privacy whatsoever when in a public space. I thought, on the other hand, that it was entirely reasonable to be anonymous.

About thirty years ago, the environmental psychologist Irv Altman laid out four strategies we use to moderate privacy: isolation, or being away from others; enclosure, or putting a barrier between ourselves and others; reserve, or sending body-language signals that we don't wish to be bothered; and anonymity, or locating oneself in an environment where information about you won't be noticed because there's no larger narrative frame to put it into. Anymore, it seems, enclosure is the only mode of privacy we have available.

My friend has the belief that he does at least in part because he knows how much data is available, how it can be organized and analyzed, and (in most cases) who has access to it. Most of us have no idea how thoroughly our lives can be tracked. Your cell phone allows GPS location of paths; your credit card can tell us not only what you bought, but where and when; your lawn chair might have an RFID chip in it, installed to let WalMart have better control over employee theft but now available to know where that chair is forever and ever; every written item ever written by or about you is available by Googling at a moment's notice. I read not long ago that the average American is photographed or videotaped about 15 times per day, in stores, workplaces, and even street corners.

We had this conversation on Sunday. This morning (Monday) on NPR, there was a discussion of exactly this phenomenon in the context of London. A woman was talking about trying to get her three-year-old into a highly competitive preschool; when the family went back for their interview, they were presented with a detailed database of all of their locations and activities for the previous two weeks. Apparently, English law allows for broad access to records (including GPS records from telephones, the phone logs themselves, and access to public-space video) as long as the person or organization asking for the information can demonstrate some "public good." In this case, the school wanted to verify that the family in question lived within the school district and wasn't falsifying their residential address in order to get their kid into this school. In addition, information gathering by law enforcement is not constrained by severity of accused crime; as one Minister of Parliament said, "If you've dropped a sweet paper (candy wrapper) on the street, we can take a DNA sample."

There's a tribunal you can complain to if you think your privacy has been violated, but that tribunal has ruled in favor of the complainant exactly once in the seven years it's existed.
More chilling, though, is that there haven't been all that many complaints in the first place. We seem to not mind that all of our activities are potentially in the public record, that the concept of privacy (which Altman characterized as the ability to modulate information) has lost precedence to the fact of surveillance. In the USA PATRIOT Act world, a desire for privacy is itself seen as a presumption of some form of guilt; the accusation is that someone who wants privacy has something to hide.

In this light, is public space desirable any more? Does the joy of social engagement also carry within it the poison sting of the Panopticon? As a larger question, do the notions of place and time carry weight any longer? I exist (as a writer, at least) everywhere and all at once. With the right access privileges, I can see you (as you are now and as you've ever existed) regardless of where you might be.

Like much of Modernism, our surrender to surveillance is brought about because we have better answers to what we can do than to what we should do. We have nearly infinite amounts of data storage space (I just bought a 250Gb hard drive last week that fits in my shirt pocket); every cell phone has a camera and GPS tag; digital telephone systems allow one-time conversations to be called back to life any time Verizon chooses. We know how to do damn near anything; we haven't always considered why.


Mike said...

Interesting, in the light of your post, that your Blog does not "allow" anonymous comments to be posted. ;)

Anyway, your last sentence reminded me of this line from the 1993 movie Jurassic Park:

"Don't you see the danger, John, inherent in what you're doing here? Genetic power is the most awesome force the planet's ever witnessed, yet you wield it like a kid that's found his dad's gun....your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think about whether or not they should!"

nora said...

One comment from one who has been "lurking" on this blog. (Nice to meet you all!)

This morning I received the 9th (now 11th) phone call (tape recordings to save THEIR labor costs) from the fifth or sixth company telling me that it is imperative that I call immediately because my credit card minimums are going up and they want to discuss debt reduction services. (I have no such concerns at the moment.) Some of the calls are quite aggressive sounding like a debt collector. Others are friendly, sounding like your best friend from high school. The callers have different phone numbers and different names.

I called my phone company and was told by two different representatives that the phone company reps have been getting these calls at work and at home.

I called the Attorney General's office and got a recording tell me to file a complaint against the company.

I called the Public Service Board. They also say I can "file a complaint" against the company. Oh yes, and THEY are receiving these calls as well.

So my privacy is compromised--even within my "enclosure." (I just received call #3 today alone.)

But who do I issue a complaint against? There are different company names and different company phone numbers and at least 9 different robo-people.

So I am being harassed by some corporation and I don't know who. They have their "privacy." Try to get a hardware complaint resolved on a Dell computer or when your GE microwave dies! Try to get a problem resolved with the big phone companies like ATT or Verizon. These representatives have code names if you can get through at all.

But THEY know where we live, what we do with our toddlers, what we eat, and where we hang out (not to mention whether we are taking medications for depression or anxiety or sexually transmitted diseases)!

We have given up our privacy to save a few minutes making a purchase on-line rather than in the store, with a credit card rather than cash. And of course, that works to the company's benefit. We have given up our privacy because we feel safer on night-streets with the panopticon.

And in so doing, we have lost the Mom and Pop stores that can't compete with the electronic machine. And we have lost the sense of community as the force that keeps us safe - e.g. Jane Jacobs' "eyes on the street."

A colleague tells me of the concept of "geo-slavery" to describe all those workers handling our food supply from the cow to the cashier, whose movements are increasingly recorded in the name of food safety (an interesting article on the concept of "traceability" is in the Geographical Review by Popper).

So what is left when we no longer care about who is watching us? Have we lost a fundamental civil liberty? Those who wrote that into our Constitutional guarantees might think so.

Herb Childress said...

Mike, thanks for the heads-up about the blog not allowing anonymous comments. That's a default setting that I wasn't even aware existed. I've changed that now, so that anyone can post a comment. However, I've also added a text-verification feature (that sort of blurry underwater set of letters you have to type in) so that most of the auto-generated spam crap won't get through. And in the end, I have the ability to delete comments after they've been posted (which I've done twice so far, both from people trying to sell HVAC equipment...)