People (including me) tend to value privacy as a general principle. Sometimes it’s a good thing and sometimes a bad thing. And sometimes it doesn’t really matter. Here are a few thoughts to spark a discussion. More below the orange squiggly thing.
Cameras in the Convenience Store
Let’s say I walk into a 7-11 (or any other store) and I see a couple of cameras. You might argue that’s a minor invasion of privacy. But the cameras are there for one of two reasons: Either to get pictures of people who rob the cashier or to watch for shoplifters. Even if the videos are digital and are archived on some computer, what is the threat to my privacy? To notice that I bought a candy bar on Thursday? To notice that I didn’t shoplift? I don’t care about that. Pish tosh.
Cameras at ATMs
Yes, I suppose that that is also a minor invasion of privacy. But suppose someone sticks a gun in my back and robs me when I’m getting cash from the bank machine? I’d certainly want the police to get a picture of that. Or if someone steals my debit card and forces me to divulge the PIN. I’d want a picture of them getting cash from my bank account at the ATM.
Here’s a really creepy idea for invasion of privacy and/or stalking you might not have thought of. I’m not even sure if it should be against the law. And I don’t have a good link to the article (I might have bookmarked it, but I can’t find it now – it might have been on CNet or Salon or Slate or some similar website – maybe even the NY Times).
An iPhone has a Global Positioning System (GPS) chip, which is how that magical computer in your hand can tell you how to locate the nearest Italian Restaurant or the best highway to take to Madison, WI, and iPhones have a clock (because clock chips are really really cheap and extremely useful). That information, location and time, is often included in the metadata file of a digitized photo that people upload to file-sharing sites such as Tumblr, Picasa, Flickr, etc. Got that?
A journalist picked out a woman at random who was taking pictures with her iPhone in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. And he imagined the scenario that he was a rapist/stalker – or a private investigator working for her ex-husband or her employer – or an assassin working for a foreign government. He looked at photo-sharing sites until he found the pictures she took (which she voluntarily made public), taken in Golden Gate Park at a certain time on a certain day. Then he looked at the user name on the photos and found a whole bunch of other photos from a house at a certain location in SF and came to the conclusion that she lived at that location. If he was a stalker or PI or assassin, he figured out where she lived.
Being Tracked by Cell Phone
Here’s a somewhat less creepy idea, but still bothersome to me: If your phone has a GPS chip, the owner of the phone can check to see where you are. If you work for a company that gave you free use of a phone and it has GPS, your employers can see where your phone is at any time during the day. If you are a parent that gives a phone to your teenager, theoretically you could use your computer to check where your teenager is. I’m 55 years old, but I don’t think parents should have access to their kids’ location. I was a kid once. I think kids should be allowed to lie, to say “I’m at Randy’s house” when they’re really at the mall. Adults should be allowed to lie, too. I should be able to say “I’m calling in sick today” when I’m really at the mall. Both situations are an invasion of privacy.
Privacy is Good
Here’s where privacy is a good idea: lawyer/client confidentiality. When a client talks to his or her lawyer, in person or on the phone or on the internet, the government shouldn’t be allowed to eavesdrop. Especially if the client is accused of a crime.
Privacy is Bad
Privacy (secrecy) is a bad idea when elected government officials are discussing issues and deciding how to vote on a bill. Those discussions should be public. Transparency is the opposite of privacy. You don’t want your local city council or the U.S. Senate making secret deals in private. Or getting payoffs. As a general rule, government records should be public (with relatively few exceptions, such as the locations of archeological sites with valuable artifacts or the nesting sites of endangered species or the names and addresses of battered spouses who have a restraining order or the names of spies working for the government).
The Old Days
In the old days when there were no computers, neighbors living on the same street knew all the gossip. That guy in that house is an alcoholic who beats his wife. That guy over there wrote a letter to the editor five years ago supporting the Communist candidate. That one is a Mormon. She’s a Swedish Lutheran. He’s a Norwegian Lutheran. Those people are poor and their kids wear ragged clothes. Stay away from the grandpa in that house; I think he molests kids. If that woman offers you potato salad, don’t eat it; I got food poisoning from it. And so on.
People were involved in gossip. I would argue that privacy is good, but it has never been perfectly achieved.
So there are a few ideas I’ve had about privacy and the invasion of privacy. Anybody have any opinions?