There’s a bit of hyperbole involved with a lot of Big Brother scenarios, but worst case scenarios are still worth talking about because we need to be able to talk about what’s possible with technology, how it can be abused by those with an agenda, and which lines can be established to prevent those abuses. What really irritates me is all the people who naively assume that people like me wanted privacy because we’re all easily embarrassed stupid klutzes, impolite assholes, or criminals.
No. Just no.
Entirely innocent things can be made into “crimes” to be punished. I want privacy because, for example, I don’t want to be turned down for a job. I don’t want my potential boss to able to enter my name into Google and find someone’s passive recording of an overheard conversation that did a bit of facial recognition and transcription, outing me as a liberal. Or an atheist. Or an anime fan. Or a D&D fan. Those things aren’t an employer’s business and right now, I’m not confident I can trust one to disregard what shows up about my personal life if he’s got an agenda that makes him think I’m satanic for having certain opinions or hobbies. I don’t want them to have easy access to my innocent conversations because they’re in a position of power and may have a corrupting agenda. They can punish me by turning me down for the job and manufacture a plausible rationalization for the courts if they get involved. I shouldn’t be shamed into hiding my politics, atheism, or hobbies at a dinner table in a small private gathering at a restaurant and I shouldn’t have to cede the power of discrimination to people who abuse technology to get that information.
I’m fine with general security cameras. They’re above eye level. They tend to have low resolution. They usually don’t record sound. They’re usually in a context where I wouldn’t expect a semi-private area. In principle, the records are only looked at if there’s trouble to justify looking, otherwise, they get overwritten or thrown out. They aren’t shared in the cloud. They’re not so easily searchable.
I’m fine with people having smart phones with cameras. It takes some level of conscious effort to start recording, and when not in use, they’re usually in a pocket or a case with the camera blocked. Casual recording is a bit on the conspicuous side, since users commonly hold up the device to consciously get a good angle for their recording, which can serve as a notification for me to watch myself. The user has case-by-case control over the recording and the sharing of information in the video. I carry a not-so-smart phone with a camera, and in the rare instances I do use it, it’s in a generally obvious manner. If someone objects (assuming we aren’t talking about a crime or something extremely or necessarily public), I’ll most likely delete the recording or, at the very least, assure them that I’ll blur or black out their faces. If I post it online (not likely), I’ll obscure faces if I suspect there’s a reasonable chance of negative consequences for the people in the background.
Without automatic facial recognition, my overheard opinions are more likely to be viewed as from “that guy,” rather than attached to my uncommon name, which could direct people’s attention to a video if they entered my name as a search term. Without automatic electronic transcription, my words are more likely equivalent to background noise, rather than potential search terms. Without automatic internet storage and availability, the recording is less likely to be seen online. If a human has to request each of those things, it’s going to add barriers to abusers looking for excuses to discriminate. With a specific action to begin and end recording, users are less likely to accidentally record something people don’t want seen. I think Google Glasses and similar technology will be a big problem if automatic is made the easy default setting and if the culture allows people to record without thinking about the potential consequences for others. If human control is the default, and if there is a cultural expectation of responsible recording, there’s less reason to worry about it.
I’d rather regular people not make a habit of carrying around hidden cameras for casual purposes. If they do, I’d want it to be a socially accepted rule that a user makes it clear that they’re recording so other people can modify their behavior if they don’t want certain things recorded, get out of view of the recording, or object to being recorded so the user can find a better time or place without treading on anyone’s toes. If they don’t know they’re being recorded, they likely can’t object until after the damage is done.
Thinking about this, there should be some degrees of privacy, rather than a simple dichotomy of private and public. I shouldn’t have to retreat into my home if I don’t want my innocent activities or minority opinions to be searchable. Going to a restaurant and having a natural conversation with my family and our private context-sensitive in-jokes and rough ideas overheard by the next table shouldn’t be viewed as equivalent to proudly posting the same content on a public blog under my real name with a photo attached.
It’s not the technology that I object to, it’s short-sightedness, naivete about the potential for corruption, lack of empathy, the Just World Hypothesis rationalizations for social retribution, sense of entitlement, privilege blindness, and so forth that some people display when they talk over-positively about surveillance technologies. We need our culture to advance so that people are more aware of possible abuses so that we can better guard against them and have appropriate laws and social mores to mitigate the problems. From my point of view, the problem isn’t that I’m a Luddite who wants to hold back technology, it’s that they’re holding back our culture, condoning or rationalizing new means of discrimination without realizing it.
If you don’t want people like me to worry about the abuses we can conceive of, focus on telling us what’s in place to prevent them.