Bycatch

I tend to agree with people who see privacy as a function of control over personal information. Not a thing, more like a trade off. It’s a big problem though that the trade-offs in any particular situation are multi-dimensional and nothing like as explicit as they should be. And what if you have no possibility of control? The always interesting Wendy Grossman made me think about this in her recent net.wars column about her neighbour’s doorbell camera

As Wendy puts it “we have yet to develop social norms around these choices”. Indeed.

Whether it is neighbours putting up doorbell cameras or municipalities installing camera for our comfort and safety, the infrastructure of cameras (much more cost effective and useful than the one imagined by George Orwell) and pervasive always-on networks is going to created a decentralised surveillance environment that is going to throw up no end of interesting ethical and privacy issues.

Here’s an example. What happens if you set up a camera trap to photograph badgers but accidentally capture a picture of someone doing something they shouldn’t be doing? This is called “human bycatch” apparently. According to a 2018 University of Cambridge study, a survey of 235 scientists across 65 countries found that 90% of them had human bycatch. I’d never heard the word before but I rather like it. Bycatch, meaning collateral damage in surveillance operators.

The concept, if not the word, has of course been around for a while. I remember thinking about it a while back when I came across a story about some Austrian wildlife photographers who had set up cameras in a forest in order to capture exotic forest creatures going about their business, but instead caught an Austrian politician “enjoying an explicit sexual encounter” (as Spiegel Online put it). This was big news although (as one comment I saw had it) “if it had been with his wife it would have been even bigger news”. Amusing, indeed. But the story does raise some interesting points about mundane privacy in a camera-infested world.

I don’t know whether, in a world of smartphones and social media, one might have a reasonable expectation of privacy when having sex out in the woods somewhere. I would have thought not, but I am not a lawyer (or a wildlife photographer). It’s getting really hard to think about privacy and what we want from it and cases like this one remind us that privacy is not a static thing. It is not an inherent property of any particular information or setting. It might even be described as a process by which people seek to have control over a social situation by information and context.

In order to obtain privacy online we can use cryptography. In order to obtain privacy offline we are stuff with ethics and ombudsmen and GPDR and such like. This makes me think that people will start to move more and more of their interactions online where privacy can be managed – I can choose which identity I want when I present to an online shop, but I can hardly walk into an offline shop wearing Mexican wrestling mask and affecting a limp to evade gait detection.

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