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By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Director of Academic Computing and User Services
The Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution provides U.S. Citizens with a reasonable expectation of privacy, at least within their own homes and in regard to their own effects. However, the argument continues to this day as to what is reasonable and what is unreasonable on the part of governments and other entities. Add the disruptive effect of digital technologies and the arguments can get even more complex.
The interaction of technology and privacy has been visited before. In 1967 the Supreme Court of the U.S. ruled in the case of Katz v. United States that "an enclosed telephone booth is an area where, like a home, . . . a person has a constitutionally protected reasonable expectation of privacy [and] that electronic, as well as physical, intrusion into a place that is in this sense private may constitute a violation of the Fourth Amendment. . . ." The advent of cell phones seems to have made the issue of phone booths obsolete, but the concept of electronic privacy is one that we now take for granted (but perhaps shouldn't.) In fact, in many public places one often can't avoid being privy to what should be private conversations, leaving us to wish that they or we had our own cone of silence.
So, we know we can retreat to a phone booth for privacy, but what about other public places? In 2002, the State of Washington Supreme Court ruled that there was no protection from privates being photographed in public. Since September 11, 2001, there has been much attention to what you can photograph, but there is not much limitation as to who you can photograph. There is no reasonable expectation of privacy in a public place, a fact that keeps paparazzi everywhere gainfully employed. You may not be a celebrity, but is it possible to avoid being photographed? Maybe not. With the proliferation of cell phones and the ability of those phones to be a camera, it is becoming increasingly possible for you to wander into someone's snapshot.
You can prevent someone from taking pictures while they are on your property, however, you can't keep someone from photographing your property from a location that is off your property. Google has turned this fact into a feature with a service they call Street View. In a number of U.S. metropolitan areas, miles of streets on the map have photographs associated with them. These are not just any photographs, but rather 360 degree views from the street showing houses, yards, cars, and any people that happen to be walking by. These photos are stitched together allowing you to virtually drive down a street. Now anyone with your address can see what your house looks like, what the surrounding landmarks are, what kind of car you drive (if you were parked in your driveway), and if your house needs painting. Thank you Google.
It seems that, thanks to the Internet, it's becoming much harder to live a fully anonymous existence, especially if your work or lifestyle makes you a denizen of the on-line world. Some people expose themselves on sites like Facebook or MySpace. But sometimes professional activity is enough to pull back any cloak of anonymity. For example, this column has appeared on line for at least the last 10 years and has always had my name, title, and e-mail address associated with it. I guess it's too late for me to hide. Even if we didn't maintain archives of this on-line publication, someone else would have. As storage continues to become less expensive, keeping archives of Internet information, as vast as it may be, becomes economically more feasible. Need a copy of the whole Internet? Google undoubtedly has one as well as snapshots going back for years.
There has been a quiet proliferation of live webcams on the Internet. A number of sites either allow you to search for webcams or troll the Internet to randomly find and present them to you. I can sit here in Texas and see who's walking down the street in Rousse, Bulgaria. How long will it be before Google knits those webcams together so that you'll be able to follow someone walking down a street and turn the corner with them to continue your surveillance? Perhaps they can call it "Stalker View." It sounds far fetched, but then so did "Street View" 10 years ago.
It might not be too long before you will have no reasonable
expectation of privacy, at least if you live an urban and on-line
existence. You can hide in your home, but be sure to draw the curtains
lest the Google street-view-mobile comes by. You can hide in the
wilderness, but it's only a matter of time -- Google will find you.