Building privacy filters against constant surveillance


Do you remember the time when important events were described by journalists, re-enacted by actors, or retold by witnesses?  Lucky snapshots were rare, and viral videos and citizen journalism were alien concepts. Now we are increasingly presented with pictures that give us every angle of an explosion, CCTV cameras catching a meteorite, the incredible crash of a cargo plane in Afghanistan, or to expect recordings of abusive behaviour on public transport.

It has become trite to point out that technology has done away with privacy to an extent previously unknown. It is trite because it is true. Smart phones have become ultimate anti-privacy tools, cameras and GPS devices that record everything we do at all times. And yet, even when we are aware of these capabilities, we decide to carry them always. With Google Glass just over the horizon, things are about to get worse for privacy.

This future is not one only created by mindless corporations, people are more than willing to give up privacy in exchange for shiny gadgets. I have to admit that I like the idea of Google Glass, while understanding the leap that it brings. Even a casual glance at social media outlets can give an idea of just how willing people are to share (and overshare) about their personal lives, even to the point of resenting those who do not engage in the practice of sharing absolutely everything. Last week I had an interesting exchange when I posted a cryptic picture on Facebook, an online acquaintance got seemingly upset by the lack of detail, even describing the practice of posting cryptic content as “passive-aggressive”. An interesting choice of words, is not posting detail about one’s life an act of aggression towards those who contribute to the public space? But I digress…

One of my favourite science fiction books is The Quantum Thief by Haanu Rajaniemi, which describes a world in which both quantum computing and nanotechnology have managed to produce perfect surveillance where every event is recorded at the molecular level. The inhabitants of such a world have given up some of their privacy in exchange for convenience. However, the technology has created a solution for the privacy nightmare, citizens can have a nano-privacy cloud, a  sub-atomic information filter that allows them to present only what they want the rest of the world to see. There are public spaces where privacy is not possible, but most people seem to operate with a mix of settings by previously agreed privacy protocols.

So perhaps we should begin to try to build privacy filters into our technology. In Zero History, William Gibson describes a t-shirt that can be used to defy CCTV detection, that is, hardware has been coded with some visual switch that will make the wearer disappear from surveillance. Perhaps we can start building similar types of built-in filters, but for consumer devices like mobile phones and Google Glass. So, if you are in a public space, you turn on a privacy device that will let consumer devices that you do not want to be recorded.

Or you could choose to wear this on your t-shirt:


Leave a Reply