With the development of technology and sophisticated data-mining algorithms, we need to completely re-think where the border is between “private” and “public” information… or even if there is a border at all.
If you tell every person you meet on the street, “I have cancer”, then you no longer can claim that it is private information. If someone “reveals” that you have cancer to your employer, you cannot claim that it is a breach of privacy, because you have already made the information public.
Your face isn’t “private”. Although it can be used to identify you, it is out there, in public, all the time. You go outside, people see your face. There is no way that you can expect the fact that you look a certain way (facially, anyway) to be private data about you.
So what about DNA? You leave a trail of it everywhere you go, every day. You leave it on your coffee cups, in public toilets, all over the place. Imagine a society with high enough technology that it can simply detect DNA that has been left on a surface and immediately decode the sequence. With this technology, “looking” at someone’s DNA would be as simple as “looking” at a person’s face. So how is that private?
You cannot claim that “the way you walk” is private, right? You walk, in public, down the street. Your gait and posture are visible to the general public, to security cameras, and to satellites in the sky. So there can be no expectation of privacy related to your gait or your posture.
Yet, security analysts have been working with psychologists and data mining operations to discover that you can detect a number of things using subtle biometric cues like gait and posture. You can determine mood, intent, even psychopathy. It’s almost as good as “reading your mind” …. at least in a very rough way.
If you can deduce “private” mental states from public biometric data, then are those mental states really private? Or are they now public?
It would be impossible to create a law that deems something like “the way a person walks” to be private information: as I said, it’s visible to anyone when you walk down the street. So if you want to maintain that “virtual mind-reading” is an “invasion of privacy”, then what are you really saying is illegal? The computational and analytical process that allows you to deduce intent and mental state from biometric data? Do we really feel comfortable saying “data X is public, but we will make a particular kind of algorithm illegal because it will allow you to deduce Y from X?
How exactly do you make it illegal to perform a particular type of computation on a dataset? How do you make data mining “illegal”? How do you even define “data mining” narrowly enough so that you don’t make all statistics illegal?
Are we talking about the Butlerian Jihad, then?
Everyone is being whipped into a frenzy over the fact that the NSA has been using advanced statistical techniques to find patterns in phone call metadata. Everyone is assuming that they are “losing liberty” or being infringed upon. Many people are incorrectly using the terms “wiretapping” and “spying” to describe the situation. Only a few people seem to realize that they are being manipulated by a media that loves to use scandal headlines to make profits.
But behind it all, there are serious philosophical questions about what privacy means, and what it even can mean in the age of Big Data and advanced computational techniques.
The question isn’t whether it is “OK” for the government to gather private information from innocent people.
The question is what it even means for data to be “private” in the first place.
If someone can deduce that you are probably gay based on your pattern of public Facebook likes, then doesn’t that mean that it is public information that you are “probably gay”?
What if some advanced calculation techniques could deduce, from the pattern of your public likes and shares on Facebook, that there is an 82% chance that you have cheated on your spouse? Isn’t it necessarily true, then, that the fact that “there is an 82% chance that you cheated on your spouse” a piece of public data about you?
It’s creepy… but doesn’t it necessarily follow that it’s true?
Let’s take a step back now:
With traditional letters, what is written on the outside of the envelope is considered public (it needs to be read by people simply in order to deliver the letter), while what is on the inside of the letter is considered private.
Phone records that divulge that a phone call was made from number A to number B and lasted for X minutes: are they more like letters? Or are they more like envelopes?
The times you leave your house in your car, and the places you go, are considered public: the police can gather that information without a warrant, simply by following you. However, the conversations that you have with people when you get to those places, behind closed doors, are considered private: police would need a warrant to get records of what went on in a private residence, indoors.
Phone records that contain only metadata: are they more like the conversations behind closed doors, or are they more like where you went in your car?
In the world of advanced statistical techniques and data mining, the problem is that these lines get blurred. People don’t get freaked out by the simple fact that the NSA has huge data sets of metadata: they get freaked out that the NSA can apply a gigantic computer program to that data, and figure out who you like, who you don’t like, what people you are similar to, and possibly even your connection to known groups and organizations. Once again: technology blurs the lines between public and private.
To address these issues intelligently, we have to ask the correct questions, and approach the question with some thoughtfulness.
We have to really analyze the philosophy behind what it means for something to be “private” or “public”.
And so far, I don’t see anyone in the media doing this.