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Privacy & Data

Disappearing Phone Booths, Part I: Privacy and New Technologies

I recently gave a speech entitled “Disappearing Phone Booths” – this is the first in a four-part series recapping the speech. Part II will address how a confluence of circumstances has conjured a perfect storm that is rapidly eroding our right to privacy. Part III will discuss the harms caused by the loss of privacy. Part IV will explain what’s at stake if privacy continues down its collision course with obsolescence. A full version of the speech can be found here.

Any discussion of privacy in the 21st century has to begin with a step back and a look around. When we do that, we can’t help but realize that we live in a world where everything we do will soon be observable – by some party or another.

That is to say, as a society, there is an incredible amount that we have to gain from innovative new technologies – but, if we go about it wrong, there is also an incredible amount that we have to lose.

What is it that we have to lose?

Let’s start with our right to read newspapers unnoticed: the right to throw a quarter into the vending box and grab a copy, to privately choose which articles we want to peruse and which one we don’t. This right gradually slips away each time a local paper shutters its presses and halts print distribution, leaving us to read online, where our clicks and page views are tracked and companies are doing everything in their power to associate those clicks and page views with our names, addresses, demographic information, and other personal information.

Now I’m the first to volunteer that I have real soft spot for online newspapers. I’m originally from Auburn, Alabama and I began reading The New York Times – the paper copy – probably as a nine- or ten-year-old. Then, sometime around 8th grade, the Times stopped making home deliveries in my town. But by going online I was able to get a daily fix of news about the world, news that wasn’t filtered through the small, local paper. I strongly believe I would have led a very different life had I not had that access to the Times, or a similar news outlet, online.

But, that doesn’t change the fact that by consuming my news online, I am opening myself up to those who are trying to create a dossier of everything I read.

What else do we have to lose?

  • The right to read a book unnoticed, especially as some titles are now published only as e-books.

  • The right to drive unnoticed – whether it’s because we have GPS built into our cars or because our phones, which are basically homing devices, are sitting with us in our cars.

  • The right to use the restroom unnoticed. My colleague recently shared the following haiku with a few of us at the office:

    From the bathroom stall
    an unmistakable sound
    an iPhone typing

    Indeed, 75% of people have taken their mobile devices into the bathroom with them, and apps on these devices are able to turn on our microphones and our cameras without our permission or without really notifying us. I have a friend who calls his iPad his “thousand-dollar bathroom entertainment system,” but it’s not inconceivable that he’s sharing another type of entertainment with prying eyes.

  • The right to make purchases unnoticed, to sit in our living rooms and watch TV unnoticed, and to get food out of the refrigerator unnoticed.

  • We also lose the right to send letters unnoticed. One of the conversations we have not been having as the US Postal Service faces death’s door is the conversation about how much privacy protection postal mail receives compared to electronic mail. Given the state of our laws, the decline of postal mail is also the decline of mail privacy.

  • Even our right to walk down the street unnoticed is being eroded. In some cases, this is because we are beaming our location information to our smartphones and their apps – telling them exactly where we are and, often, what we are doing at any moment in time. In other cases, we lose the right to walk down the street unnoticed because of rapidly improving facial recognition technology that is paired with closed-circuit televisions or drones – like the types that will be deployed for surveillance during the London Olympics this summer.

  • And how about the right to have our hearts beat in our chests unnoticed? We may soon have phones that not only turn on our cameras and microphones, but that can monitor our heart rates and blood sugar levels. There are some really exciting healthcare applications of technology like this, but this is also data that never before has been so regularly transmitted to a third party.

This list could stretch on for pages. Needless to say, the privacy of the most mundane, and sensitive, of our activities is rapidly eroding as these activities move into the networked world.