Wednesday, June 23, 2010

public privacy is an oxymoron

i was just reading (yes, i know i'm behind) this post by paul ducklin about public unprivacy and i was struck by how absurd it sounded. perhaps things are different in australia but where i come from there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in public spaces. this isn't new, either, it's been this way for a long, long time - long before google arrived on the scene, that's for sure.

apologies to paul, but he seems to be misapplying the concepts of privacy outside the scope where it makes sense. i've seen similar things in my professional career as well. even so-called 'privacy experts' seem to want to try and get the benefits of privacy in situations where it just doesn't work.

privacy has limits. there are situations where the strategies that comprise privacy make sense and work well and there are situations where they fail for practical reasons. it doesn't matter if keeping X private would be useful or desirable, if the practical realities prevent it then privacy is the wrong tool. being out in public where everyone can see you is one situation where privacy logically can't work (unless perhaps you wear a shroud, but even then only if lots of other people are wearing shrouds too and only if one can't tell the shrouds apart).
i see london,
i see france,
i see the colour of paul ducklin's pants.
preventing filming in public doesn't protect or restore anyone's privacy. if you're in public then the public can still see you, they can see where you're headed, what you're wearing, what you're holding, who you're with, etc. everything that could be photographed can still be seen by the people around you. all preventing filming will do is make it more difficult to disseminate the information you were misguidedly trying to keep private in public. that information hasn't really remained private, it's just harder to share in some cases.

one wonders, if public photography were limited (and british cops, with their penchant for harassing photographers, would love such a policy) what would come next? would public twittering become outlawed? after all with a cellphone i could just as easily tweet that tom cruise and katie holmes are walking down john street and give away as much information as i could with a photo, if not more (a photo might not give any geo-location data - and real-time geo-location data is something celebrities really don't want getting out there). perhaps we should outlaw public observation in it's entirety.

in order to effectively protect ourselves it's important to know when and how to apply the various protective strategies at our disposal. privacy doesn't work in public - you can't magically stop people from seeing/hearing/sensing you. when we step out into a public space it should be understood that everything people can see or hear is no longer hidden and therefore not private. if there's something we want to keep private it's necessary to keep it hidden away where people can't get access to it, which means not bringing it out into a public space.


Paul Ducklin said...

My article on "public unprivacy" was supposed to be _slightly_ absurd :-) It would be hard to regulate the use of all publicly-taken photos (though not impossible, since many countries already do this quite strictly in respect of pictures of children).

But that doesn't stop us improving our social networking attitudes, which is why I concluded with this: "'s time for the majority of the camera-wielding, Facebook-loving public to learn to think of the privacy wishes of the minority when they upload their snaps to the web...."

The law may say you can do what you like with (most) photos taken in public, but that doesn't mean you should.

kurt wismer said...

if wishes were horses then beggars would ride.

asking people not to go out of their way to violate real privacy, to not thwart other people's attempt to keep private things secret, is one thing. asking them to collaboratively construct an entirely fictional kind of privacy is quite another.

if you don't take even the most basic precautions to keep something private then the wish that it remain private isn't much of a wish.