So true

Inlined since I don’t have the source URL:

The Panopticon is here, and it’s us

You may have heard about some so-called riots that occurred in Vancouver recently, following the Stanley Cup playoffs.  What I found interesting about this event is that there was no need for police surveillance to identify the people committing acts of vandalism.  The crowd did it.  Almost everyone carries some form of digital camera these days; millions of photos and videos were taken that evening, some of them by the vandals themselves.

Many of the people who were there were displeased by the actions of the rioters and were only too happy to post their photos on public websites and share them with the police in order to help identify the wrongdoers.  Some of the perpetrators were positively identified, named in public, and themselves and their families shamed.  They squirmed uncomfortably in the public spotlight.  Some of them dug themselves in deeper by making stupid comments in response.  I can’t help but think that the repercussions of all this for those who were identified will dog them for some time, and though that seems good in some cases, in others it might be unfair.  Will some kids find it difficult to get a job just because they happened to be caught in a photo with someone much worse?

But what disturbs me about this sort of public self-surveillance is that I kind of approve of it, at least as exercised during the riot.  I would much rather have random strangers taking pictures of each other and me than have the police taking pictures of them and me.  I find this hard to reconcile with my self-image as a rabid privacy advocate, though that was already somewhat in conflict with my photographer status.  What I don’t want to see happen is people using this sort of data to fuel vigilante justice.

Oh, and: This is a hell of a lot cheaper than the British solution of having manned surveillance cameras every five feet.


A cow-orker showed me this ten gigapixel composite photo of downtown Vancouver.  It’s really nice.  But if you zoom right in, you can easily recognize people driving cars in the foreground, and you can see into hundreds of living rooms in the apartments and condos downtown in the City of Glass.  While this is all perfectly legal (and as a photographer I’m glad it’s so), it does sort of bother me.  What if someone in one of those cars was not supposed to be there at that time?  What if someone in one of those living rooms was caught doing something embarassing?  If it were me taking that picture, I would have blurred out all the faces and license plates, and checked the condo windows.

And indeed I have done and will do something similar; I sometimes record timelapse movies of my road trips from the dashboard of my vehicle.  Before I show anyone the finished movie, I go through and blur out all recognizable faces and license plates in the video.  It’s a ton of work, but I feel compelled to do it out of respect for peoples’ privacy, even though I’m not legally required to do it.  I would hate for someone to get into trouble because I happened to document their presence at some particular coordinates in space-time.


I follow some people on Twitter who habitually post “checkin” messages when they arrive at favorite stores or restaurants.  They use services like Yelp and Foursquare to do this, and it only takes a moment to do with smartphone integration.  These messages arrive more or less instantly, and usually contain the address and website of the place they’re at.  So right there I can correlate a person’s location at that point in time and their shopping or dining preferences – and since Twitter has an API, I could potentially do that automatically for large numbers of people and perhaps discover some interesting patterns.

It’d be a great stalker tool – find out where your special someone likes to go and what days and times of day they tend to go there – and get notification possibly in time to actually find them.  I think the actual intended application (or selling point, anyway) is that it could let friends discover each others’ presence nearby and get together for company, and that’s great, but that effect seems, in my perception, tiny in comparison to the potential marketing fallout (somebody is gathering this demographic data, I guarantee).  I won’t go so far as to say it’s an invasion of privacy since posting these checkin messages is voluntary, but it still makes me a little uneasy.


Satellite and aerial photographic maps.  I love them a bunch, but if you have a unique vehicle everyone in the world now knows where you park it, and if you have something to hide on your property then you’d better make sure it’s concealed from the air too.


The recent Canada Post strike forced me to switch to paying my bills online.  I love it.  It’s quicker and more convenient, and no more messing around with paper records – I can get my bills already in PDF form rather than having to scan & shred them later.  My bank already knows who I give money to, but now they know it in a much more automated way.  It wouldn’t be hard for someone on the inside to make and secretly sell a list of everyone who has sent money to Organization X.  It doesn’t matter that they’re not allowed to do that, because once it’s done the potential damage is enormous.  And how about security?  I now have accounts on a lot more websites – accounts that contain important personal information.  More passwords means more risk of cracker stealing my identity and selling it – and while I minimize that by making all payments through my bank’s website, their security is actually among the worst – imagine not allowing passwords longer than 8 characters!


Social networks.  Especially FaceBook.  They are useful and I use them; they help me relocate old friends and keep in touch with current ones, and are a great source of interesting news.  They also encourage us to share personal information about ourselves. The selling point is that it helps us facilitate our interactions with friends and strangers, and it does, but there’s demographic gold in them thar hills.  You better believe someone is collecting and selling it and someone else is correlating it all.

Which leads to targeted advertising.  I hate advertising passionately, but why?

  1. It’s trying to get my money.
  2. It’s often very repetitive; they’re always trying to sell me things I already know exist or that I could easily discover if I had a need for them.
  3. It doesn’t work anyway; they’re almost always trying to sell me something I don’t want.

But the reason marketers collect demographic information is in order to target their advertising – make it so people see ads that are more likely to be of interest to them, thus increasing sales and increasing the effectiveness of the advertising dollar.

But what I recently realized is that targeted advertising, if done right, actually eliminates all three of the above annoyances.  If the ads that are presented to be really are selected based on my interests, then (3) they might try to sell me something I actually do want, (2) they might inform me of a product I didn’t know existed and therefore (1) make me glad to spend the money.

So targeted advertising isn’t really a big objection to demographic data collection any more, at least for me; if I must be subjected to advertising, this at least increases its utility.  But that still leaves the disturbing and difficult to predict correlations that might pop out of all that poorly protected data.  I don’t actually know what they might be, but I fear the worst.  Suppose the police state to the south or our own dear nanny state demands access to that data and starts scrutinizing people based on suspicions arising from the correlations they find there?  If you buy a lot of gardening supplies and household cleaning products, that must mean you’re a terra-ist, right?


I’m kind of jealous of kids growing up today in the world of ubiquitous digital cameras.  I have only spotty photographic records of my childhood, and no audio or video recordings from back then.  Without those memory aids most of my youthful memories are lost – few memories without photo backup have survived in my aging brain.  While today’s children will be subject to many more humiliating displays of baby photos by parents to their prospective girl/boyfriends, I think they’ll find as they get older that the value of having the non-embarrassing memory aids more than compensates for it.  Of course, there are some extreme examples…


No, I’m not approaching a conclusion of any sort here.  Just tossing out some things that have been on my rabid privacy-advocate mind lately.  I’ve had more occasion than usual lately to ponder issues of privacy and surveilance, and just thought I’d share some of those ponderings.

Wait.  I don’t have a conclusion, but I do sort of have a summarizing feeling: The rapid growth of personal data collection, detection technology and ubiquitous digital cameras, combined with the rapid growth of data correlation and automated recognition capabilities, puts us in an era of rapidly accelerating erosion of privacy.  So far it’s not enough to really alarm me, and in a few ways it has benefited me, but I worry that maybe my lack of alarm a stupid “frog in warming water” mistake on my part.  I just hope we don’t all find ourselves in a bad place one day because of this.


TED round 3

More interesting talks:


Kwabena Boahen on a computer that works like the brain – Detailed comparison between transistors and neural ion channels, with application to brain enhancement.

Julian Treasure: The 4 ways sound affects us – Hell yes. More awareness like this please!


Mike Rowe celebrates dirty jobs – Basically a rant about American laziness, but the story is interesting.  There is some truth to his conclusion but I think he’s over-romanticizing.

Ian Dunbar on dog-friendly dog training – Magical truth-saying! I’m glad to see some progress in the science of dog training.

Deb Roy: The birth of a word – Some really interesting data visualizations here, and he makes me envy (somewhat) kids growing up today in the world of ubiquitous digital photography.  While it means having evidence to suppress, it also means having great memory aids.

Christopher “moot” Poole: The case for anonymity online – I don’t think he really makes much of a case for anything – indeed he talks about some things that could be called invasion of privacy. But it is interesting to hear the back-story of a little-understood web phenomenon.

Malcolm McLaren: Authentic creativity vs. karaoke culture – Long but good.  At first it’s not clear where he’s going, but it comes together when he gets to his art school story.  He’s on about one of the things that really bothers me about western pop culture.

Amber Case: We are all cyborgs now – I love her visualization of the mass of the data we carry around with us.


James Balog: Time-lapse proof of extreme ice loss – Standard-issue environmental message aside, the time-lapse movies of glaciers moving are worth watching.

Michael Pollan gives a plant’s-eye view – A nice counterpoint to the typical view of man exploiting nature.


David Pogue on cool phone tricks – Grab bag of useful clues about cell phone services.


Aaron O’Connell: Making sense of a visible quantum object – Science!


Angela Belcher: Using nature to grow batteries – Progress!


Philip K. Howard: Four ways to fix a broken legal system – “You can’t run a society by the lowest common denominator.” HELL YEAH!

Larry Lessig on laws that choke creativity – Basically about remix culture versus IP law.

Barry Schwartz on our loss of wisdom – A great rant about how mindless rule-following and poorly constructed incentives have led to some of the social and legal insanity we suffer today.


Benjamin Wallace on the price of happiness – Gets to my problem with a lot of “gourmet” culture, namely mistaking attributes like rare, special and expensive for the attribute “good”.