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Privacy, Anonymity and Public Spaces: What is going On? PDF Print
Privacy, Anonymity and Public Spaces: What is going On?
By: Thomas B. Riley

October 25, 2005

We are experiencing significant cultural change in societies around the world due to the increasing number of new information and communication technologies coming into the marketplace. These innovations are altering the way we communicate and interact with each other in public spaces. These changes could have significant impacts on our understanding of privacy and the ability to remain anonymous.

A search of the Internet illustrates the rise of technologies that protect the anonymity of individuals. These technologies are not just about protecting privacy but guarding individuals from having their data stolen or from having their activities tracked on the Internet. Such software capabilities provide the ability to stop hackers from getting access to our online transactions that can include emails we send, sites we visit for research purposes or whatever it is we are looking for on the Internet.

The evolution of wireless technologies creates even deeper problems as without sufficient firewalls or security enhancements in place, it is possible for an individual to use another person’s computer or for an outside user to latch on to your computer and either use your computer hookup for themselves or, the worse case scenario, steal data. The possibilities of harm being inflicted are broad. The issue is paramount now because of the rise of the problem of identity theft though a recent study by the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario found that 70% of personal information stolen by identity thieves has been offline.

The fact is that our new technologies have brought many challenges to our personal privacy and to desire to remain anonymous in an online world. But as with all new developments in the evolution of societies throughout history every innovation that moves the society forward also contains within it the contradiction of an equal evolution that has deleterious effects on society. One of the most obvious examples in the age of transportation is the possibility of diseases and pandemics to be rapidly transmitted around the world.

Privacy is now facing a new type of contradiction. In the past few decades many countries have embraced the right of privacy of individuals as a human right. The development of fair information practices, independent commissioners to oversee the laws and the right to redress by the individual if there is a perceived privacy violation, has resulted in a strong privacy ethnic in many societies. While individuals on the whole are not necessarily versed in the depth and mechanics of privacy laws many people are aware that they have the right of privacy and the right of a private space, if they so choose. The right of privacy, security and confidentiality in our society and in our legal system is strong. However, there is something that needs to be considered in the privacy mix and that is the cultural changes ongoing in our society.

Technologies over the past decade have become very intrusive and have radically changed the way we communicate. The most obvious example is the cell phone. Another one is the emergence of digital cameras. These two technologies alone are what I would call “privacy busters”. Walking down the street recently, I observed an individual busy with his digital camera taking pictures – perhaps, for posting on the Internet? He was not going around asking permission to use the pictures and who knows where these pictures ended up? Obtrusive surveillance cameras, secret videotaping of someone else in their home or placing cameras in public spaces, such as washrooms, to record people’s private activities, are widespread. Many such violations of people’s physical privacy have ended up in the media or the courts.

However, there is now a new phenomenon of people wanting their privacy on one hand but becoming increasingly visible and comfortable in sharing personal information in public. This move from private to public space is as a result of the ever-growing sophisticated communication technologies. Not too long ago I was on a train in England traveling from London to Oxford. There were dozens of passengers (literally) engaged in exchanging conversations on mobile phones and, in the process, letting out any amount of personal information – including where one was going (address), or the number of a land line phone the individual could be reached at. Another man was busy giving out the address of a friend. Across from me was a businessman busy talking on his mobile and transmitting all manner of information about his business. His laptop was open and running plugged into another mobile allowing him to transmit information back to his office – all of which I could see.

This phenomenon in the UK is partly because of the large number of people who commute to London or other destinations for their work. In fact, there has been so much chatter on the trains a public debate has arisen about how this can be curtailed.

The issue of communicating in public is probably not going to be changed anytime soon as people have adapted to this technology and find it convenient and useful for what are their individual purposes. For example, a recent survey has shown that 71 percent of the 108 million households in the United States have at least one cell phone.

The abundance of cell phones is just as evident here in Canada. And the number of phones coming on the market will grow and change. Already, cell phones are no longer just an extension of the landline telephone. Now phones are combined to have many functions, like the Blackberry. It is a cell phone, an Internet access tool, email facility, voice box utility for voice mail messages and text messaging. The enhancements will grow as we become, literally, integrated with these new technologies.

New technologies bring new social mores and behavioral patterns. There have already been many articles, studies and academic papers on the pressures now put on the worker who is now, through these technologies, on the job almost 24 hours a day. Gone are the days when you could turn off your phone at night or conveniently forget to leave a phone number with the office when you went off on a two or three week holiday of rest and relaxation. Now you can be reached in the comfort of your cottage, at the helm of your sailboat or on the shores of that northern river that is a favourite fishing spot. You may want to turn off you cell off but then you just might miss that one important phone call; or you might want to call someone and when booting up the phone, the messages will come in. Our space is shrinking in the networked world as we become attached to the invisible networks that are bringing more stress than we want to acknowledge.

The technologies are attached to us in inextricable ways though many people also choose not to buy into the phenomenon. But it is very hard now as the pressures of society demand you be online or connected. For example, I myself only give out my cell phone number to a few people, families and very close friends. I also don’t use it for web access or send text messages. However, the likelihood of my falling prey to these new technologies is strong as the pressure to be “connected” or “networked” is strong. I definitely am connected to my computer and constantly running to get to my terminal to see the latest message, do some research or check out the buzz on the latest listservs to which I subscribe. One caveat to this scenario of “connectivity” is that there are about 25% of Canadians who do not have Internet access at home nor do they have the connectivity many of us take for granted.

People impose their conversations on us whether we like it or not – and they spew out their most private details in very public spaces. We don’t want to hear people’s cell phone conversations or the beep of their blackberry that a message has come in. It seems that people believe when they are on a mobile or cell phone he or she has created a private bubble that protects them from the outside world yet that is a pre-conceived notion which anyone listening in knows is false. It is an extension of the early phenomenon of the party line pre-1960’s before we all got private, individual lines for our homes. In the times of the party line it was understood that when the phone rang (and usually there was a distinctive ring for the party the person was looking for) if it was not for you, you did not pick your own phone receiver up. On the whole, the protocol was observed but teenagers would often breach the protocol, as would some local gossips wanting to know all the juicy details of what was going on in other people’s lives. Yet, on the whole, people respected others private conversations. The expectation of the person on the party line was that another was not listening but in fact many people were surreptitiously listening in. This new phenomenon is an extension of the concept of the party line and people seem to believe no one is listening.

This technological change has brought with it not just social change but emotional problems and stress with having to be so connected. But the social issues of how technologies are impacting us emotionally, is for another article. In terms of anonymity while many prefer to protect their personal privacy there are increasingly more people bringing their private lives out into public spaces. Chatting on a cell phone in public for all to hear is invading the space of the people who are in hearing range.

Yet, in this new concept of taking up public space, people are listening to these cell phone conversations whether they like it or not. This is increasingly considered to be a rude activity but the practice continues. Also, individuals giving out all manner of details about their lives and what is going on at the moment are at risk of giving out personal details that could be picked up by someone who might have good use for it. Our personal details can be captured in many different forms because of the increasing number of technologies that can capture data and conversations. This issue of public conversation is a serious one. A recent poll by market research company Synovate found that 70 percent of 1,000 respondents observed manner-less technology use in others at least on a daily basis.

This new phenomenon of carrying on private conversations in public spaces is not just about manners and rudeness, as repugnant as it might be. This is more about changing attitudes that has resulted in the new contradictions in our society. One where individuals inherently understand that their privacy, security and confidentiality is important in their lives but are willing to take their lives out into public spaces and have them open to whoever is listening or walking by. In the past, phone conversations were private in confined spaces, such as the home or the office. Now people, having adapted the technology, have willingly taken themselves out into public spaces and opened up their lives to strangers. People do get upset with loud conversations in public or with the phenomenon called “yell cell” but I think this is a phenomenon that will increasingly become a part of our lives.

This form of privacy is well beyond the paper and digital world of the passing Information Age. In the Networked Age new protocols are needed to address the issue. The solution is education about how to protect one’s privacy but still utilize the benefits that the new technologies can bring. This is not just a job for privacy commissioners. Many offices in Canada and across the world have made comments on the new technologies and suggested best practices for individuals and groups to protect their privacy. But a wider effort is needed. Perhaps, it is time for the whole issue of privacy to get onto the educational agenda. Privacy values could become part of civics lessons in schools at the primary and secondary levels. Whatever the approach we need solutions to bring the concept of privacy into the emerging generation of the continuous online, networked people.

We cannot simply leave this new form of education to privacy commissioners and the few academics that care about privacy. We need mechanisms to make this a public issue. We need to take this out of the realm of the small domain of privacy advocates and practitioners into the wider public domain – or more succinctly, into the public spaces where our private lives are increasingly going.

Thomas B. Riley, located in Ottawa, is the Executive Director of the Commonwealth Centre for e-Governance.
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