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Personal panopticons

By davebirch posted Mar 6 2007 at 11:04 PM

[Dave Birch] I've been sitting on the Royal Academy of Engineering's Working Group on Dilemmas of Privacy and Surveillance.  The Group will soon publish its report, and I don't want to pre-empt it, but it does discuss both surveillance and sousveillance quite a bit.  Jerry Fishenden from Microsoft reminded me of this when he asked what happens to notions of privacy and liberty in a world in which everyone has the capacity to watch and record everyone else? This is the kind of area that the Working Group was looking it, trying to make for more informed public debate: technology can clearly be a positive, constructive force for good (even if we can only think of bad things at the moment).  But this particular example impinges on discussions about identity, because it takes identity our of your hands.  You won't have the choice as to whether to deliver real identity into a transaction, but your environment will do it for you.  Good or bad?

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Bruce Schneier's New York Daily News piece on Mayor Bloomberg's announcement that New York will be the first city with 911 call centers able to receive images and videos from cell phones and computers illustrates just the kind of technological development discussed in the report: sousveillance.  If you witness a crime, you can now MMS a picture of the perp to the emergency services.  Now, this clearly makes us safer (except in France, where it is a crime to snap such a picture unless you're a professional journalist -- I'm not making this up, it's a real story) because images and videos can help identify and prosecute criminals whereas, as Bruce notes, memories are notoriously inaccurate.

But there is, of course, a flip side to a society where everyone is on patrol, cameraphone at the ready.  When linked through pervasive networks to computers that can sort, select and match at high speed then an erosion of privacy is inevitable because of these personal panopticons.  As the noted philosopher Milhouse says in the episode of the Simpsons where Bart is made a school prefect, "Sure, we have order -- but at what price?".

My opinions are my own (I think) and are presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public.
[posted with ecto]

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