I’ve long thought that, as tough as privacy against government intrusion and corporate surveillance are, the most novel and complex privacy challenges will be peer-to-peer. With gov’t and corporate privacy issues, the players to be affected are more known and manageable, and impinging on their freedom to collect on us — or report what they find — feel like “regular” regulation.
But what happens when the information being gathered about us is thanks to someone wearing a headset and simply streaming anything interesting that he or she sees, helpfully auto-tagged with our identities? Some bars and restaurants may try to ban Google Glass on the way in, but lessons from anything ranging from mobile phones to hats tell us who’s going to win that war in the longer term. Especially once the distribution of streaming devices has evened out, so it’s not just the occasional freak behaving anti-socially, but all of us doing so, we’ll need to look for other solutions if we don’t want to be stuck simply having to reconcile ourselves to no private moments in public.
One place to mine is the realm of digital rights management. DRM has not worked out so well for copyrighted material in the public mainstream, like movies and music. But what if the kind of tagging by which stuff can ask — if not require — “don’t copy me” could be deployed for privacy purposes, more in the spirit of Creative Commons than the ill-fated Macrovision VHS copy protection scheme.
How to do this? A start would be to allow people to set their expectations for a given environment, and to be able to broadcast them (without having to share their names, of course). If enough people in, say, a classroom, agree that the meeting is off the record, then recording devices will be alerted accordingly. They’ll still function, but they’ll show a message that the environment is expected to be off the record — and perhaps they’ll have a glowing LED or some other gentle indicator to tell others in the room that someone has chosen to record despite the norm. Perhaps, too, those recorded will be able to have some form of pseudonymous contact information embedded in the recording — so that if it should become public, they can choose to show that they were indeed the ones recorded (again without necessarily having to reveal identity) and then ask — not demand — some privilege in contextualizing or commenting upon the recording.
Many of us might appreciate an opportunity to know about others’ preferences and expectations in a quiet, low-impact way, and then to respect them — or if not, to realize that that choice entails overriding the preferences of others. The function of the technology is not to impede certain uses by fiat — the way the old DRM did — but rather to allow people to see that other people are implicated by what they do, permitting the moral dimension of our enthusiastic use of technology to become more apparent.
Update: PlaceAvoider appears to seek to implement some of this functionality.
The preceding is republished on TAP with permission by its author, Professor Jonathan Zittrain. “Reconciling Lifestreaming and Privacy: Tech-Facilitated Negotiations” was originally published January 27, 2014 on The Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It.