Tuesday, June 15, 2004

A response to the Bellman: The Evolution of Privacy

The Bellman accused me of being a internally inconsistent in response to my last post about the Vatican RFIDing their library collection. Maybe he was being facetious, but since I've no sense of humor, I'm going to respond to him in my usual dour and long-winded manner. Because I am so long-winded, I'm posting my response here instead of in the comments.

I don't think that tagging library books will have any impact on privacy, because people don't tend to keep their library books with them all the time. The library book is usually sitting at home. Sometimes we carry them around with us, but not that often. No one in their right mind would try to track someone by what library book they are carrying around.

We are much more likely to be tracked by our cell phones, pdas, wristwatches, cars, or even by some transmitter directly attached to our bodies.

Now, the loss of privacy through tracking what books we check out is an entirely different issue. And whether we use old-fashioned bar codes or RFID's, the same records are kept. So again, RFID in library books has no privacy impact here.

Privacy, however, is a complex topic. I've posted some of my research on privacy here, if you're interested.

I contend that some aspects of privacy have been lost in our society, but other aspects maintain, and some new aspects of privacy are being developed. The idea is to choose the right compromise between our desire to interact with the world through the web and our desire to keep some aspects of ourselves private.

Michael Gorman, the current president of ALA, has argued that we are in many ways going back to the village of the middle ages where there was no privacy. With all due respect to Mr. Gorman, I think this is totally alarmist.

Privacy is becoming ever more complicated, but it is not totally going away.

Informed consent is what I encourage. We should be aware of how we are being tracked and what is being tracked so that we can make informed decisions about what rights we can retain and whether it's worth it to us to retain them.

I think in the future there will be gigabytes of data tracking us all. All of our cell phone calls, all of our movements, all of our emails, all of our web surfing, all of our credit card purchases, etc. will be archived somewhere.

But that information overload will also lead to a certain amount of conditional anonymity. It's only when someone has the incentive to dig all of that information up that we will have our privacy infringed.

But we'll never know who has done this or when...so we'll live knowing that we are leaving tracks. But not what tracks necessarily or to whom they are accessible.

Let me move on to how new modes of privacy are developing. The internet gives the illusion of anonymity. It is a false impression, but that makes it no less psychologically powerful to most people. This is like folk wisdom of internet privacy.

According to this folk wisdom, the internet is a forum where people can suggest anything because they aren't physically connected to what they post. No one sees their face when they post...

Now, it is a bit unsettling to me when I'm at a party and people go: "Oh, you're Safety Neal," in that knowing sort of way.

I'm sure that children growing up now will adjust to these new facts of life seamlessly, it's only people stuck in the old paradigm of privacy like me who need to catch up with the changing times.

So I think a sense of privacy will endure.

What I am more afraid of is the chilling effect that this ability to research a person's life will have on political protest and free speech.

So it may be our freedom that we are losing more than our privacy....

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