Tech’s Role in the Erosion of Privacy

There’s an interesting debate happening right now among those in the cyber-security/privacy space. It revolves around an assignment given by a Kate Klonick, an Assistant Professor at a law school in the US. This assignment was for her students to go to a public place, and attempt to identify the strangers they see through observation.




Interestingly, her thread seems to have divided the privacy community. Some are praising this assignment as a “great assignment” or “brilliant.” Some related amusing anecdotes of people doing the same thing at parties. One person pointed out that all the students’ searches will be recorded by Google, and this will teach the students to “…become people who don’t respect the dignity of others…”


It’s an interesting debate to say the least. On one hand, it’s useful for these students to learn how easy it can be to gleam information about you from what you advertise to the world without realizing it. On the other hand, it’s a clear invasion of privacy of those people who the students will be spying on. One point brought up by one of the opponents of this study was that it reflects on the erosion of privacy.

This brought me to reflect on an annoying modern trend: people in public using their smartphones to record everything and everyone in sight. Sometimes I’ll be at a club, and someone’s got their smartphone on video mode, panning across the entire room, capturing everyone there. Sometimes there’ll be a couple of people in the middle of the dance floor, and 10 people around them, all recording them.

Back when I was in my 20s (yeah, I’m dating myself, so what?), digital cameras became commonplace. They were pretty convenient, and you could easily carry one in your backpack or purse. Even though they were so convenient, you didn’t see people taking pictures or videos of everything. In fact, seeing someone use their camera was the easiest way to spot a tourist. Most importantly, you didn’t see people taking pictures of complete strangers.

So what’s happened between then and now? Well, aside from all my grey hairs, we now have the surveillance economy. Now we have Google, Facebook and other social media companies making billions of dollars off the information people post online, and getting them all addicted to continuing to do so. Nowadays, young people are taught that it’s cool to violate a stranger’s privacy, and post a recording of them on Facebook in order to get more likes.

I sometimes refer to these folks as “Zuckerberg drones,” because that’s basically what they are. Taking these photos and videos, and then posting them to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or whatever, provides more data for these companies to use to run through their algorithms to determine how better to sell you something you don’t need, or simply get further addicted to their services. It’s of no benefit to the people doing the recording, but it’s of great benefit to the people running those companies.

The oddest thing of all of this, is how vehemently these people defend their privacy invading behaviour. They refuse to accept how incredibly rude it is to take a recording of someone else without their consent.

The question of consent brings us back to the situation that started this whole debate. Since this was an optional assignment (with no grades affects), every student who takes  part in it has given their consent. Those folks that they’ll be observing however, won’t even know what’s happening, so they won’t be giving any consent.

I don’t think it would be that hard to create a situation where students could learn the same lesson while still respecting consent. Universities never seem to have a shortage of willing participants in research studies, so this professor could have found a way to only involve consensual targets for her students to observe. This way, the lesson is still learned, while people’s rights are respected.


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