Technocrats’ happy snaps

Once again, technologists confuse being in public with giving up one’s right to privacy.

Today’s Sydney Morning Herald reports on recent advances in automatic surveillance by facial recognition of people in public, especially airports. Now, I am not weighing into the public good argument; personally I would be delighted if this sort of technology thwarted terrorist plots. What worries me is the fundamental failure of technocrats to grasp privacy, and how this chronic blind spot biasses their work.

The subject of the article, Professor Brian Lovell, is quoted as saying ‘people did not have the right to privacy in places such as airports’.

It’s vital to appreciate that the concept of being “in public” doesn’t actually figure in Australia’s Privacy Act. What matters in our privacy regime, and in the Information Privacy law of many countries, is Personal Information — that is, any information about someone whose identity is readily apparent — and how that information is collected, used, shared and managed.

Traditional surveillance tapes of people in public places are retained for some months, and if suspicion arises, they’re pored over by cops on a mission. People caught on tape who are not of interest remain anonymous. But automatic facial recognition of digital imagery converts otherwise anonymous data into PI, in real time and en masse, without discriminating between suspects and everyone else. Identifiable information is then converted into profiles and intelligence and probably retained ‘just in case’ a good deal longer than video tapes. After all, disk space is cheap.

It’s worrying that technocrats seem so often to have a very limited and self-selected understanding of information privacy (see some more analysis of this gap at Public yet still private). They’re not well equipped to have the crucial public good debate if they don’t get how their technology works to create vast drifts of Personal Information where previously there was none.