Privacy? What Privacy?

by Scott Morrice on 11/28/2012

I’m off on one of my rants—about privacy in fact. This one touched off by an article that I just read, having to do with the dangers of our kids leaving too much of themselves on the Internet.

Of course, the focus of the article was Facebook, and the thrust of the article was, as always, about reminding our kids that all the information about themselves they are putting on their Facebook page was not something they can take back—ever. Those pictures of them drunk in a parking lot after a football game were still going to be around, and available to job interviewers doing their due diligence, when they applied for a job as Chief Surgeon at the Harvard Medical Centre in 20 years time!

But this particular rant is about a different side to this same issue (actually this is not going to be a rant at all—it is going to be more of an introduction to an issue that I intend to try to address in upcoming posts)—but it is a side of this issue that has also been given quite a bit of exposure recently.

The above Facebook caution is one that I am sure all parents worry about and express to their children. In some fashion. But if we, as parents, adults, or whatever, can acknowledge, in this limited context, the dangers of unlimited access to personal information, why do many of us not see it as a problem in our own lives?

The first time the issue became really apparent to me (and I admit to be being a bit of a late-comer to this particular party), was in the context of discussions our civic officials were then having about installing surveillance cameras on the downtown streets of our community.

Of course the push was coming from the local police, and of course the argument in favor was about assisting law enforcement with visual records of crimes being committed and the witnesses to those crimes, and also, of course, the deterrent factor of having those cameras looking over your shoulder at all times—and all the “bad guys” knowing that they were there.

As you know if you read my “About”, I am a lawyer, and I immediately experienced a severe case of “unease” about all of this.

However, when I expressed this sentiment to some of my friends, I was mostly met with a distinct lack of sympathy for my concern. The most immediate response was along the lines of…. “Well, if you’re not guilty of anything, then why are you concerned about being watched???”

Sometimes when I am given a response that is so far outside my understanding of what is obviously (to me) the “correct” position in a matter, I am overwhelmed with possible responses. Where do I start??? The list is so long—how am I going to get it all across to this person (who so obviously needs my help with this)????

That is where I find myself with this issue, surveillance cameras. I almost find it hard to join the discussion, to articulate my position, because the answer is so BLOODY OBVIOUS! To me.

So, I do want to write about this particular issue more. I am really concerned about the many privacy issues the digital universe is serving up to us. And it is not just surveillance, it is about all the different kinds of monitoring that recent technology has enabled.

Another good example of what I am speaking about, that is not surveillance related (strictly speaking), but makes the point, is the already existing technology that once installed in our vehicles, prevents drivers that have been drinking beyond certain defined limits from actually starting their cars.

On the one hand I can’t imagine anyone these days arguing that drunk driving is okay. And on the other, we have this technology at our disposal—so why aren’t we using it?

At first blush the correct response would seem so obvious. But, I don’t really know that it is. I don’t even know where I stand on all of this.

On the one hand, I am totally against surveillance cameras on our streets. I think this is an incredible invasion of our privacy. Very “Orwellian” in scope and practice. The… “Well, if you are not guilty of something then why are you worried about it”…response doesn’t resonate very well with me.

And yet, my first reaction to allowing devices in our cars that would prevent us from starting them if we have been drinking is that—this is a terrific idea! Why wouldn’t we do that? Why aren’t we doing it right now???

Even I can see that I am being incredibly inconsistent. The automobile situation is just another example of 3rd party monitoring. Why is it any different than the surveillance camera situation?

In fact, I don’t think it is any different in principle.

But maybe the ultimate answer is that we don’t decide about how to proceed with these issues in the context of matters of principle. Maybe pragmatic compromises trump matters of principle—to ensure our survival as a community, as a society. And if that is so, then how do those compromises get determined? How do you draw the line? And does that line get to move from time to time?

I’ll keep you posted.

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