I Can See You

Transparency rules, whether you like it or not.


It’s remarkably easy to dig up enormous amounts of information about individuals, without their consent. Just ask Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. After Scalia dismissed privacy concerns in a talk he gave, a Fordham University instructor on Information Privacy Law decided it would be illuminating for his students to do a bit of digging about the Justice. What they found wasn’t exactly shocking (home address and phone number, movies he likes, his wife’s personal e-mail address, and “photos of his lovely grandchildren”), but it was far more than they expected.


We leave digital footprints everywhere we go, and those footprints are becoming easier and easier to track. Although many of us believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that transparency is generally a good thing for a society, the lack of control over what you reveal about yourself is often troubling. The ease with which abundant personal info can be used for (e.g.) identity theft creates a situation where we have many of the dilemmas of transparency without enough of the benefit.

These dilemmas can emerge in surprising ways. In California last year, a highly-controversial ballot measure, Proposition 8, won a narrow victory. But many activists saw Prop 8 as discriminatory, and decided to learn more about which of their neighbors supported the measure. Campaign finance laws in the U.S. require that donations to candidates and initiatives above a certain amount be listed in public records. Anyone who has seen the rise of map mash-ups over the past few years can guess what happened next: Prop 8 Maps took the federally-required campaign finance information and displayed it using Google Maps. As a result, opponents of the measure could discover who among their neighbors and local businesses cared enough about stopping same-sex marriage that they’d donate a large sum of money to the proposal.

Unsurprisingly, people “outed” by this site — which simply took public information and made it more readily understood–were outraged, especially after talk of boycotts and harassing phone calls. But there was little that they could do; the makers of the Prop 8 Maps site had done nothing illegal. As digital tools become easier and easier to use, this kind of forced transparency will become more and more commonplace, and not just in the U.S., in the months and years to come.

And it doesn’t require the Internet. With the rise of cheap, networked recording devices–aka, cameraphones–we’re seeing the emergence of a culture of documentation, where individuals use their cameraphones to record and share unusual and often problematic moments. From events as amusingly scandalous as South Korea’s “dog poop girl” to those as shocking and tragic as the New Year’s Eve killing by an Oakland transit cop, citizens are using cameraphones to catch misbehavior and make it undeniable. What’s particularly notable (although not especially surprising) is the availability of multiple perspectives on the same event, as personal documentation with a cameraphone becomes almost second-nature for many of us.

(Here’s a tip for aspiring filmmakers: one way for an audience to see a spectacular event as “real” is for any crowd scenes surrounding the event to include at least 10% of the people there recording the moment with their phones. Disaster or science fiction movies set in the present day that don’t include such mass documentation will increasingly look weird and dated.)


Examples of the use of cameraphones to record startling or tragic events have become too numerous to list; it’s enough to say that a growing number of metropolitan police departments have begun to offer “cameraphone 911” sites to allow citizens to upload images and videos of crimes. And, as the Oakland event demonstrates, it’s just as easy for citizens to document the misbehavior of those in authority, as well.

Surveillance in Manchester

And then there is the rapid growth of official surveillance systems. In the U.K., police cameras are ubiquitous–I actually saw more surveillance cameras in Manchester last week than I did in Singapore on a trip last November.

We live in a world of unrelenting transparency. What can we do about it?

Some ideas next week.

“DBase-Banksy” by UnusualImage via Flickr, licensed under CC
“Surveillance in Manchester” by Jamais Cascio via Flickr, licensed under CC