Privacy: a fading human right?

June 17, 2007 at 3:00 am 8 comments

Photo by LalidaBack to the surveillance society: I’ve been thinking about how CCTV cameras are emergent properties of a system: a fear-based society in which the human-eyes of Jane Jacob’s city, who watch over and protect neighbours, have been replaced by a deep mistrust of fellow human beings. We are subjected to intrusive searches at airports; fingerprinting; iris scanning; Google Street View.

Now we have eye-tracking devices that will be able to record people looking at ads on billboards. The Eyebox2 is a new eye-tracking capability: a palm-size video camera that can record eye contact with 15-degree accuracy at a distance of up to 33 feet. Advertising nirvana perhaps, but for people like me concerned about the contemporary erosion of privacy, it’s yet another intrusion on the self and another example of how the social contract (always a delicate balance) is being pummelled. The social contract binds a society together: in exchange for certain civil rights – such as the right to equal protection or the right of freedom of movement – individuals jointly agree to subject themselves to civil law or political authority. Paramount amongst our civil rights is the right to privacy.

I question whether those glass-domed eyes silently watching and recording our movements are not in fact breaching our right to privacy, along with technologies like Google Street View and Google Maps. Time magazine recently raised the question: are Google Maps an invasion of our privacy? What I’ve seen mostly is blogs and websites making fun of images captured by Street View – here’s an example. Why are we not concerned about being watched by what are frankly surveillance technologies?? Have we become so apathetic and accepting of what Governments tell us that we can no longer question whether we are hurtling straight into becoming a controlled, fear-based, mistrustful society?

Thankfully, the privacy lawyer for Electronic Frontier Foundation, Kevin Bankston, is speaking out about Street View: “There is a serious tension here, between the concepts of free speech, and open information, and the idea of privacy….We don’t think what Google’s done here is necessarily illegal, though a few images may cross the line and may create liability. It’s more that they’ve done something that’s really irresponsible and rude to people.” Irresponsible, embarrassing, humiliating, thoughtless, unethical. I for one do not want my cat snapped by the roving Big Brother eye of Google while said cat peacefully suns itself in the front window of my house; nor do I wish to be citizen Joe standing on a street corner minding my own business, then suddenly finding myself on Street View with the caption ‘The Voices in My Head are Back” emblazoned for all to see and snigger over – funny caption perhaps but not so funny impact on the person.

A right to privacy and freedom of movement means that a man can quietly slip into a “gentleman’s club’ for a lunch hour’s worth of (dubious) entertainment; you can protest at a political rally; or you can exit unseen out of a plastic surgeon’s office following a shot or two of botox. The sorts of activities we get up to as social animals might be questionable or downright immoral, but our right to carry them out in anonymity emanates from our right to privacy. Ironically, Kevin Bankston’s image was captured by Google Street-View and Google has refused his request to take it down without Bankston coughing up a driver’s licence and various documentation.

Privacy International has just released a report, A Race to the Bottom: Privacy Ranking of Internet Search Companies, and no doubt you’ll be truly shocked to learn which search engine company was at the bottom of the list – Google – which was accused of entrenched hostility to privacy and using personal data less responsibly than its competitors. Let’s not forget that Google is a company that recently acquired the online advertising firm DoubleClick, making it the possessor of the world’s largest collection of data about Web users’ behaviour. Google senior engineer, Matt Cutts, laughed off Privacy International’s report saying: “Personally, I think Privacy International should feel remorse about walking right past several other companies to single out Google for their lowest rating.” Ah yes, good ploy: let’s shift the blame onto the competitors.

Surely, we’re moving into a future we don’t want to step into. A future in which we will without a doubt be snapped by some glass-domed CCTV camera or caught unawares (and perhaps compromised) by Google. Where everything occurring in our world will be Googleable and where we will live in cities that are nothing more than a Panopticon, guarded by silent, glass-domed sentinels.

For an extreme glimpse into our future as a watched over society, check this out.


Entry filed under: CCTV, Education and Awareness, Google, Privacy, Rant, Reflections, Society, Surveillance society. iPod to blame for decline of artistic sense?

8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark  |  June 17, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    I share your concerns about the surveillance society. You can’t go anywhere in London anymore without being caught on half a dozen CC cameras.

    On another note, please get rid of those terrible “snap” pop-ups! They were so irritating and distracting as I was scrolling through your article that I nearly gave up. If I want anything to open up, I’ll click on it, thank you very much.

  • 2. thinkingshift  |  June 17, 2007 at 8:23 pm

    Hi Mark

    Thx for leaving your comment. I’ll check out the “snapbox’ situation. I think it’s a WordPress thing. Just double click on any green link – that avoids the box.

    Have you ever tried to retrieve a CCTV image from somewhere you know you’ve been in London?

  • 3. Top Posts «  |  June 17, 2007 at 11:58 pm

    […] Privacy: a fading human right? [image]Back to the surveillance society: I’ve been thinking about how CCTV cameras are emergent properties of a […] […]

  • 4. Privacy: a fading human right? « Veronica’s Lore  |  June 18, 2007 at 1:04 am

    […] June 18th, 2007 [link][more] […]

  • 5. thinkingshift  |  June 18, 2007 at 9:36 am

    nasty pop-ups now zapped :)-

  • 6. Big Gav  |  June 18, 2007 at 11:43 am

    I think this poster up over George Orwell Plaza in Barcelona says it all :

    As for privacy being a fading human right, I embarked on an overly long analysis of the dire state of privacy and the alternatives embedded within this book review – just past the half way mark – you might find that things are a little worse than you imagine (the “Participatory Panopticon” idea is probably the best alternative going now unfortunately) :

  • 7. thinkingshift  |  June 18, 2007 at 11:46 am

    Thx for the link to your review will check it out and yes, that poster says it all indeed.

  • 8. Surveillance World » Somebody’s Watching Me  |  August 17, 2007 at 1:04 am

    […] nothing worse than having the feeling that someone is watching your every move.  I’m not all that paranoid under most circumstances.  Being a work at home […]


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