ME and Ophelia

Thursday, January 22, 2004

There's no such thing as privacy

Following on from my post on Jan 20 re privacy issues, and in response to the comments received, I've looked at some pictures published by BBC News online (my homepage). Seems unlikely that most of the people pictured were aware of having been photographed. Millions of such pictures are in the public domain. It'd be ridiculous for all those people to sue. There is no such thing as privacy in public places. The moment you step outside of your home, your image is in the public domain. So, on reflection, I don't think that the Chinese couple will win in court. Had they been photographed kissing in the garden of their home, might they stand a better chance? I don't think so. Here's why:

How does one define private life and personal space? What can one do about someone using zoom lenses to photograph a person behind the window of their own home, in their garden etc? *Home* for many people could be within the walls of public buildings like hotels, hospitals, care homes, military bases, boarding schools, prisons, etc. People set up home in boats, tents and caravans. Home can be in a presidential palace, mud hut or cardboard box. Some nomads live under the stars.

Big Brother arrived years ago. We are the public domain. So, what exactly is a private life? Is it secret stuff, wrongdoings, skeletons in the closet, things to be hidden in the dark; personal details on financial, medical, DNA, our naked selves? If we think we conduct our private life in private, what's to stop anyone who is witnessing this private life, blogging about it - like the kiss-and-tell and what-the-butler-saw sort of stories communicated by the traditional media. There's no such thing as real privacy.

However, there are such things as security issues. Huge safeguards exist for protecting things and people en masse. But what about our security as individuals, and the safeguards to protect us against opportunists and predators, especially on the Internet? No doubt whole new careers and businesses will be built on these issues. Fields like Cyberlaw are a new frontier, the teachers and students of which are breaking new ground. Hopefully, close attention is being paid to the development of safeguards that will enable individual citizens to protect their personal security. It may be just a matter of time before the things that are unthinkable now, start to happen in cyberspace.

For instance, on October 1 of last year, I blogged the BBC's report of an ambulance worker in England who allegedly used a mobile phone to take a photograph of a corpse from a "road traffic incident". Apparently, the victim was a teenage girl. It's easy to imagine how this could happen, and the distress suffered by the girl's family, friends and relatives. What if the photo had been transmitted within seconds to some ghoulish website, before the family were even informed of the girl's death? The traditional media would not have published it, for fear of getting sued, but it could have been posted to an anonymously authored weblog. Once something is on the Internet, how possible it is to delete whatever has been trawled by the search engines?

The ambulance worker was sacked but no charges were brought by the police. (In fact, the report confirmed the police would not be investigating any aspect of the case.) If some sort of lifetime ID number and system (similar to a driver licencing system) were in place, and that awful *incident* was logged against the ambulance worker's ID, it may deter him and others from inflicting devastation on other people's lives. I'm not just talking here about a National ID, but a Global ID system designed for the Internet. In this country, some people concerned with civil liberties are lobbying against our Government's proposal to introduce National ID cards. Surely, the benefits of safeguarding our freedom and protecting us from opportunists and predators, far outweigh any potential infringements of civil liberties. Besides, if there's no privacy to invade, how can there be such a thing as invasion of privacy? In my view, people who are against the introduction of an ID system can expect to be suspected of having something to hide.

# posted by Ingrid J. Jones @ 1/22/2004
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