Exploring privacy in public spaces

Originally posted at SeattlePrivacy.org: https://www.seattleprivacy.org/exploring-privacy-in-public-spaces/

 

What should I expect–as a matter of privacy–in public spaces? The City of Seattle, my home, recently accepted more Department of Homeland Security grant money to expand its existing DHS-funded wireless mesh and surveillance network to include cameras and facial recognition software.

Although I know city officials are trying to use technology to enhance the functionality of the city, there are many privacy-impacting technologies, like our plethora of transportation tracking mechanisms, that make me feel like they want to track my every move. What does it all mean? Is it wrong to feel uneasy about public surveillance?

In this exploratory article, I will apply some critical thought to the issue of personal privacy.

The concept of personal privacy is easily grounded in our idea of a home. A juxtaposition might be spending time in a public space, such as walking down the street or relaxing in a local park. This simple scale of privacy would look like this:

  • relaxing at home (high expectation for privacy)
  • relaxing in a public park (low expectation for privacy)

Fortunately, life is not as simple–or as constant–as living privately at home and hanging out in public. Depending on how you live your life, many circumstances and factors impact your personal privacy. It seems prudent to identify the non-linear constants in order to shape the scope of personal privacy. At a glance, privacy appears to be relative to the expectations of any given culture, and then further defined by any person. Here are a few generalized cases:

  • personal bathroom (high expectation for privacy)
  • intimate actions with another
  • relaxing at home
  • driving a personal vehicle on a public road
  • relaxing in a public park
  • presidential speech
  • pornography (low expectation for privacy)

These cases and their order will not be the same for every person. However, there are several observable and quantifiable constraints that shape these cases that probably will be applicable to many more people, and I will attempt to define these constraints:

  • physical security (PS) – how open to physical touch are you?
  • visible security (VS) – how open to visual inspection are you?
  • time of privilege (ToP) – when (an explicit or implicit range of time) is it okay to impede upon your PS or VS?
  • space of privilege (SoP) – in what physical spaces, or what obstacles, affect your PS and VS?

The role of privilege appears to provide the structure to any given notion of personal privacy. Fundamentally, there appears to always be some aspect of privilege in any circumstance, and every circumstance requires some form or privacy for psychological stability and physical safety. Let’s go a step further by defining and applying a sub-scale:

  • 4: you and only you are allowed (examples: you and only you)
  • 3: one-to-few persons that are explicitly defined as having an explicit purpose, and are allowed only during an explicit amount of time in an explicit amount of space (examples: intimacy with a loved one at home, a visit to the doctor at their office, or a meeting with your lawyer at their office)
  • 2: one-to-many persons, including automated systems, having implicit expectations, may have temporary PS or VS access but still limited in ToP and SoP (examples: attending a music concert, shopping at the mall, or dancing with friends at a club)
  • 1: anybody, including automated systems, has full PS or TS access, but still limited in ToP and SoP (examples: performing on stage, recording yourself for a YouTube video, Tweeting publicly)

There doesn’t appear to be any measurement that does not have a basic expectation of personal privacy due to the requirements of “time of privilege” and “space of privilege”. As intelligent and reactionary individuals, our expectations of privacy are extremely dynamic and are always based on the outcome of our expected actions, particularly where we are and why we are there. Once we end any given action, in any given space, our privacy expectations will vary depending on what we expect is next. Applied:

  • personal bathroom: PS-4, VS-4
  • intimate actions with another: PS-3, VS-3
  • relaxing at home: PS-3, VS-3
  • driving a personal vehicle on a public road: PS-4, VS-2
  • relaxing in a public park: PS-4, VS-2
  • presidential speech: PS-3, VS-1
  • pornography: PS-3, VS-1

With these cases, it is apparent that physical security has a certain priority over visual security, probably because people are generally more careful with what they allow people to physically do with them (risk of injury) versus what people are allowed to see. Again, this is relative to where certain people are and for how long certain people are there.

Privilege

A special advantage, immunity, permission, right, or benefit granted to or enjoyed by an individual, class, or caste.

Society has helped shape my understanding about sex, in that the act is very special and should always be protected. It is an event that is so sensitive that it requires physical exclusivity with that person. The complex nature of privacy requires the notion of privilege, an extremely important requirement in order to have an intimate relationship with another individual. Ordinarily, my partner should have cost me a great deal of time and energy to develop trust and understanding. Through relationship building, my partner and I are able to take part in acts with each other that, ideally, no one else in the entire world is supposed to be involved with. That being said, it still only gets a score of 3 for “physical security” and 3 for “visual security”.

Having intimate relations with another person still does not rival the time (ToP) and space (SoP) that I allot myself when I use the bathroom. No one can bother me there. In my bathroom, I can take a shower and be allowed to independently think and relax, be able to utilize the toilet, or be able to calmly take care of myself in front of my mirror. I have explicit privilege to all aspects of myself in this space. This level of privilege is not easily or willingly jeopardized, and is why it gets a score of 4 for “physical security” and 4 for “visual security”.

With these two cases, it is clear to me that the notion of both physical and visual security, shaped by time and space, are inherently important in order to define the context of privacy. Privilege is an expectation set by me that defines the rules for what I am willing to share with others during explicit amounts of time and space, and this all amounts to personalized privacy.

When I am at home, either by myself or shared with my friends and family, privilege is automatically extended to specific people that I have developed specific levels of trust. This trust is not always mutual, but it is trust that I extend to others nonetheless that is based on my expectations.

Considering more moderate situations of privilege, entering the “public sphere” means that I am leaving an explicitly trusted space. Concepts such as “access” and “trust” become more passive, implicit, and dynamic. We withhold more physical access privileges while passively accepting an increase in visual access, meaning that we are willing to give up a certain level of visual security in order to accomplish specific tasks. Basically, in public, we extend access to ourselves more often, but it is not given out as deeply. This is why “driving a vehicle on a public road” and “relaxing in a public park” have the same level of physical security as being alone in your “personal bathroom“, while it has the lower visual security that is exclusive to day-to-day action in the public sphere.

The internet is vastly different

Both private and public aspects of the Internet play critical roles in my life. I use implicitly-public internet mediums everyday in order to access and share information, probably more than most people due to my addiction to Twitter and my desire to stay connected with worldly events. And since I don’t use a cell phone, all of my personal communication with my friends and family are sent and received via digital networks using implicitly-private internet mediums.

Fundamentally, physical security becomes two things online, one of which is the security of my physical location, something that can be exposed either by automated processes such as GPS information, or by me sharing my whereabouts accidentally or on purpose. Physical security considerations also include the general maintenance and storage of information, either “data at rest” (i.e.: databases) or “data in motion” (i.e.: data transfer). Visual security is dramatically different online. The information that I consume and/or share is explicitly or implicitly indicative of my individuality, all of which can not only be seen by a huge amount of people, but it is copied, stored, and later seen by, possibly, a similarly huge amount of people.

Together, physical and visual insecurity, uniquely made possible by the internet, is the permanent exposure of my thoughts. The consequences of sharing information via digital mediums goes beyond anything that our human brains are capable of understanding.

Information security has three requirements for proper care, commonly defined as the “CIA triad“:

  • Confidentiality – Is the information only accessible to the right people?
  • Integrity – Is the information authentic and unchanged?
  • Availability – Is the information always accessible to the right people?

These requirements are deeply entangled with personal privacy and the protection of privilege. If the security of my information is not maintained, then information about me will be at risk for exposure which fundamentally violates my personal privacy. Online privilege can then be determined by explicit access controls that I set which is grounded by a personally determined understanding of consequences when information is exposed to anyone beyond me. The problem with controlling privilege online is that it’s nearly impossible to do.

Internet-based social networking is extremely popular. Over time, my social profiles require me to make a copy of my highlights, my achievements, my problems, my story; all of these unique and interesting things about me that help distinguish me, all of these things that prior to the internet only existed on a one-on-one basis with a very select amount of people. With internet-based social networking, my persistent profiles are not only available for everyone to see 24/7, but the companies that I entrust my story with can make a copy, can sell a copy, or can hand a copy over to anyone it thinks is justified. The real-time stories about my life, how I think, what I hate, who I love–the deeper notions of my individuality are brought out when I converse with people that I explicitly trust or want to trust. The companies that I have to trust when I want to connect with people get a permanent copy–a permanent version of me.

For the internet to work for me, I have to provide it something that goes dramatically beyond what I’m used to giving out. I have to give the internet my thoughts, and it’s not as simple as it sounds. The internet gets a copy of what I think, when I think it, how I think it, and worst of all, anyone who can see my thoughts and the meta-information about my thoughts gets to write it all down, permanently, for their own personal records. Fundamentally, I have to forfeit the security of my thoughts in order to use the internet.

Offline, a very controlled amount of people are able to have a copy of my thoughts. The probability of being able to maintain the control of my thoughts is vastly improved when I know that once I say something or share my feelings–shaped by an emotionally connecting expression–I don’t have to worry about those things being misused or mishandled.

When I make a status update online, write a comment, or send a message, people don’t get an emotionally connecting expression. People don’t get to simply remember what I say or how I say it. People–potentially many more than intended–can save it, can come back to it at any time in the future, and can think about it in new and unexpected ways because the state of that information will not change even though people do.

Surveillance

Close observation of a person or group, especially one under suspicion.

Surveillance is fundamentally a combination of search and seizure. When it comes to internet, telecommunications, or audio and video surveillance, you can not search something unless you seize it first. Spying is the act of looking at people and the information that they create that was not explicitly intended to be shared. In order to spy on people, other people have to compromise the confidentiality of me or my things. A compromise of confidentiality means a compromise in personal security. Surveillance should never be tolerated by a society if performed outside of the scope of explicit criminal inquiry.

Like the majority of commonly-privileged Americans, I do not actively perceive physically or visually violating search or seizure of my person or property in such a way that negatively affects my life. However, Edward Snowden has brought to light many facts that show that our government is actively violating my first and fourth amendment rights. This situation is the most pervasive example that any of us in our entire lives will ever indirectly experience. This situation is exactly why my rights are written down on the documents that founded this country, because the people that directly experienced persecution from Brittan in the 1700’s attempted to proactively protect the citizens of this country. This situation must be fixed in order to avert the slippery-slope conditions that make a tyranny possible.

I think that there is a clear difference between being watched given any particular activity, the recording of that activity, and further its long-term retention. Storing specific information about where I am, what I am doing, and with whom I am doing something with is a far more potentially damaging act than simply watching me and forgetting about me.

Conclusion

What does is mean when Seattle’s government takes money from a federal government grant program that came to be following a major terrorist attack? Has Seattle’s government lost its ability to keep the peace, or does it simply, fundamentally, not trust its citizenry? If Seattle’s government continues with the installation of cameras and facial recognition software, it is a demonstration of illegitimacy. Mass surveillance is terrorism, because it concisely says to the public, “You are the enemy.”

The circumstances of your life determine your privileges. Privacy is something that you always have and that you have to work to keep in order to protect your privileges, especially in public spaces where your security carries greater risk. If you have to request privacy from someone who inherently doesn’t care about you, then you have already been stripped of your privileges and you should reject this completely because you should not forfeit your identity, your intentions, or your thoughts so willingly. The exception to this is when you commit a crime, something defined by society as being counterproductive to a stable society. You are innocent until proven guilty because implicit trust is fundamental to a stable society. Your identity and your thoughts are what allow you to exist as an individual. The large majority of people want to do the good and right thing in any social context. Just because a small amount of society chooses to do the opposite does not justify the compromise everyone’s individuality and the devolution of a stable society.