Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Campus Lecture: Tony Doyle on "Privacy and the New Panopticon"

Tony Doyle, of Hunter College, spoke on our campus in a lecture co-sponsored by the library, on October 2, 2012. I wanted to get these notes down for a while, especially after the concept of panopticon was alluded to by another guru at the Library Assessment Conference later that month. To be honest, I found this small lecture to be more valuable than that other big presentation. These are my notes from the lecture:

  • Do we in fact have less privacy than 20-30 years ago? Yes, we do have less privacy. But is it a good or bad thing? And can we do something about it? 
  • Note to check out work by Helen Nissenbaum on privacy.
  • As individuals, we have a reasonable interest in privacy, keeping some things private. Privacy also allows for experimentation without social costs such as ostracism or stigmas (this is a large reason why I have no problem with people online having pseudonyms or being anonymous, something that does irk a few certain celebrity librarians in the profession). 
  • Socially, privacy promotes social freedom. A robust democracy needs informed citizens. People feel free to share information and seek it if they have a healthy degree of privacy. 
  • Jeremy Bentham came up with the notion of the panopticon. The panopticon is a place where all can be seen without the observer being seen. He developed this concept for a prison. This is the basis of ideas of surveillance and how you could modify your behavior if you know you are being watched. He saw this constant surveillance as a motivator for good behavior. 
  • Peter Singer, a contemporary disciple of Bentham, thinks the concept is a good idea. For example, webcams in restaurant kitchens and even in slaughterhouses. (By the way, you know who else thinks this is a good idea? This "reality show" guy. A show that, by the way, has faced much of the criticism other "reality" shows face: being fake.Take that for what it's worth. For more of Singer on this topic, see his Harper's essay of August 2011.).
  • According to Nissenbaum, our lives are rich with information. Note how we leave digital trails. For instance, something as seemingly "innocent" as EZ passes for toll roads. 
  • There may be a sense that information technology has also enhanced our privacy. This is the sense of desirable anonimity. 
  • But overall, there has been a loss of privacy over the last thirty years. 
  • Four things computers do really well: 
    • Store massive amounts of information.
    • Aggregate exhaustively. 
    • Retrieve easily. 
    • Analyze thoroughly. 
  • Bland bits information, aggregated and analyzed, can generate more information and patterns. 
  • One more thing computers do well: distribute information and data fast and wide. 
  • Note to check out work by James Moor
  • With all this information, marketers can target your vulnerabilities. Sure, custom ads may be of interest, but what are the companies learning about you as you browse, shop, use a credit card, so on? 
  • (To me, Doyle seems awfully optimistic. You can be judged by your profile, maybe even manipulated, but he does not believe this can be nefarious. Given what we know of companies, can we afford this optimism or even naïveté?)
    • On the other hand, we have things now like facial recognition software. But he sees surveillance as good at times. 
    • Overall, we can't count on being totally invisible in terms of privacy as we could in older times. 
  • We ought to do more to protect our privacy in public. 
  • Five important questions that we need answers for: 
    • Who is gathering the information? 
    • What kind of information is being collected? 
    • Why is it being collected? 
    • Who are they sharing it with? 
    • Under what conditions is the information being shared? 
  • Doyle argues the new panopticon in large measure is created by us, by the digital trails we leave. This is also tied to convenience. For example, try renting a car without a credit card. 
  • Problem with new security measures is that after they are added, they never go away. 

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