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.

Jackie No

The “The Law of the Telephone” by Herbert Kellogg in The Yale Law Journal 4(6) (June 1895) is a fantastic read. It begins by establishing that the basis of the law of the telephone is the law of the telegraph:

Like all common carriers the telephone company may establish reasonable conditions which applicants must comply with; and the use of profane or obscene language over a telephone may justify a company in refusing further service, on the same ground that a telegraph is not liable for a failure to send immoral or gambling messages.

Thus the new medium inherits from the old one. But is this true in social terms? Whole books were written to set out an etiquette for the telephone and to explain to the person in the street how to use the new technology in a civilised manner. I predict we are weeks, perhaps hours, away from a similar book for new Google Glasses users. I can see that there has already been plenty of thinking about the ethics of wearable computing, so we should probably start there rather than wait for new regulation evolve to govern us.

He also said that in deference to social expectations, he puts his wearable glasses around his neck, rather than on his head, when he enters private places like a restroom.

[From Privacy Challenges of Wearable Computing – NYTimes.com]

I remember reading something about memes once. I can’t remember where it was ever couldn’t find it through superficial googling, but I remember the example that was given, which was the way that women started to wear sunglasses pushed up on the top of their heads apparently in emulation of Jackie Kennedy, wife of the noted philanderer Jack Kennedy. I’ve no idea whether this is true or not and I’m sure someone will be else send me a picture of a woman wearing sunglasses on the top of her head before Jackie Kennedy was born, but the example stuck with me and returns whenever I think about the spread of means within a population, evolving social norms and the role of media. So it is with great pleasure that I announce the first new meme for Google Glasses. I call it the “Jackie No” rule. It is this: when you go into a public restroom, you should push your Google Glasses to the top of your head, Jackie Kennedy style, to signal to anyone you might meet that you are not a pervert. I imagine that there are many circumstances where merely wearing Google classes will arouse suspicion you are not entirely normal, but here is one case where the inherent boundaries that make a civilised society possible must be made explicit for the safe functioning of civil society.

In the future, everyone will be famous for fifteen megabytes.