Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Open Planet

As a private music teacher, I spend a decent amount of time bouncing around the various schools in the community.  Needless to say, I get a lot of radio, but not a lot of full stories.  Today, one of the many partial shows I listen to was focusing on a pending US Supreme Court case dealing with privacy.  In this particular case, a drug dealer was convicted with the use of evidence gathered through a tracking device on his car.  
The concept of privacy as protected by the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution is very simple.  Each individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy within their own home or property - car, boat, etc.  The Constitution, of course, never discusses whether or not an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to electronic tracking.  It becomes an issue of the courts to decide exactly the intention the framers had when writing the Constitution.  
What it does make clear is that we are never to assume a reasonable expectation of privacy the moment we step into public space.  The topic of discussion on NPR turned from the pending court case to the future of privacy, and particularly the role tech giants Google and Facebook will play in defining what exactly privacy means to each of us.
At any given time during your day, computer systems and private and public security cameras provide a timeline of your daily activities.  For instance, here is a log of my day and the systems that can identify my location:
  • Woke up and checked email (internet company)
  • drove to teach at first school (traffic cameras)
  • entered school (security cameras)
  • in between lessons sent email/text messages, checked internet (cell company)
  • changed schools (traffic cameras, phone call, security cameras)
  • starbucks (mobile app)
  • changed school (ditto)
  • restaurant (phone usage)
  • drove home (traffic cameras)
  • home (internet)
The combined information from these systems could theoretically rebuild a fairly accurate representation of my activities during the day.  The NPR hosts discussed the idea of “Open Planet,” an idea put forth by author Jeffrey Rosen in his book Constitution 3.0.  “Open Planet” is a concept that suggests Facebook and Google currently have the architecture in place to quickly introduce a system that would allow users to anonymously view any public security camera in the world, identify a face with facial recognition software, link to their Facebook page, do a search of that face in all security cameras, then track that individual’s movements at any point in the database’s memory.
Creepy, huh.  Kinda makes an electronic tracking device seem quite elementary.  The Constitution has enough safeguards in place to protect our privacy from government, but does it have anything to protect us from private entities?  You wouldn’t have to worry about the FBI as much as your creepy neighbor.  Parents could know exactly where their kids are at all time (something college kids prefer not happening).
This scenario would definitely have interesting ramifications.  Personally, I am curious how my behavior would change if I knew that people could track me where ever I went.  Maybe I wouldn’t go to Starbucks as often.  Maybe I wouldn’t eat fast food as often.  Maybe I wouldn’t care.
The whole situation begs the question: what is privacy?  Do we have any expectation to privacy beyond our homes?  Either way, it certainly presents an interesting possibility for the future.  

Frank Chambers


  1. Cheers, Mr. Chambers!

    Parsing this and other similar type discussions could get really spooky. It does need to be addressed even though most of the populace (an assumption on my part) are too busy trying to subsist/coexist/be in denial with what they have already staring at them in the face.

    Nice of NPR to hold the spin down unlike some other media down in the AM band.

    Timothy Zamora

  2. Mr. Zamora,

    You are right. In my experience, most people have a sort of tunnel vision only incorporating what serves to get them from this day to the next. Without looking ahead to the future, we can never prepare for what is heading our way.