Action Speaks, the panel discussion series at Providence art space AS220, continues its fall season — "Private Rights and Public Fights" — on October 31 with a look at our surveillance society. The event, free and open to the public, begins at 5:30 pm.
Frederick Lane, author of American Privacy: The 400-Year History of Our Most Contested Right, is among the scheduled panelists and we caught up with him for a Q&A via email in advance of his appearance. The interview is edited and condensed.
"AT ITS CORE," YOU'VE WRITTEN, "THE HISTORY OF AMERICA IS THE HISTORY OF THE RIGHT TO PRIVACY." WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT? I believe that a significant aspect of personal privacy is self-determination, the ability to choose what information will be shared with others and how that information will be used. Those concerns were manifest in the American Revolution and shortly thereafter, when the Bill of Rights was adopted to limit the ability of a central government to conduct unlimited seizures, or impose its will on the private religious choices of citizens. Over the succeeding 200 years, technology has consistently challenged our ability to control the spread of information, and the law has struggled to keep up.
FACEBOOK, COOKIES, DATA MINING. WE SURRENDER ALL KINDS OF INFORMATION ABOUT OURSELVES ONLINE. COMBINE THAT WITH EVER MORE ROBUST VIDEO SURVEILLANCE AND YOU COULD ARGUE THAT PRIVACY IS OBSOLETE. SHOULD WE BE CONCERNED — OR NOT? It's not the spread of information per se that should worry us; it's the loss of control over where that information goes and how it is used. Yes, we willingly and unwittingly release large amounts of information into the world, and all too often, information is simply taken from us. We need a legal framework that can protect our ability to choose what information we release and what can be done with it. Many states, for instance, have laws prohibiting the unauthorized use of someone's face for commercial purposes. Why shouldn't the same be true about what Web sites we visit, or the posts we make to Facebook, or the list of places we've checked in on Foursquare? After all, data is now painting an even finer portrait of each of us than the most megapixeled camera.
IS FACIAL RECOGNITION SOFTWARE THE COOLEST INTRUSION ON OUR PRIVACY OR IS THERE AN EVEN MORE BAD-ASSED TECHNOLOGY I SHOULD BE AWARE OF? Facial recognition is the high-profile, scary-headline badass that should be ruining the sleep of anyone who has ever appeared in an adult film or uploaded a nude mirror self-shot to tumblr.com or imgur.com. Sooner or later (not much later), it will be possible to drop any image into a social media-driven identity checker and find out the name of some poor kid who thought he or she would somehow remain anonymous. (Researchers are already showing that this possible by comparing profile photos from Facebook and dating sites.) But in my best The Graduate whisper, I've got two really scary words for you: data mining. The peril lies less in the amount of data that's been collected about us, [than] in the connections that can be drawn and the conclusions (right or wrong) that can be reached.
: This Just In
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