Thursday, April 24, 2008

The irony of privacy enhancing technologies

I reported last month that the Information and Privacy Commissioner has issued a report on the proposal to dramatically increase video surveillance on public transit in Toronto. (Canadian Privacy Law Blog: Ontario Commissioner releases detailed report on TTC surveillance cameras) has an extensive article on the Commissioner's suggestion that reversible faceblurring technology may make the system more palatable. I spoke with the author, Rosie Lombardi, at length on the topic who has done a good job of summing up my take on the topic:

More privacy-boosting technology begets more video surveillance

... A point that's often overlooked is that privacy legislation is ultimately about feelings, says David TS Fraser, a privacy lawyer at Halifax-based law firm McInnes Cooper. "Although the legislation is written in a way that talks about personally identifiable information and identity theft, it's ultimately designed to protect people's sensibilities about unwanted intrusions," he says.

PET technology may not be enough to address those sensibilities unless the rules governing the use of surveillance are stated. "While the technology may do a good job of limiting the actual intrusions, I'm not sure it does much to address people's feelings about being watched. Unless the policies and procedures around surveillance are clearly communicated, it won't diminish that visceral feeling of unease about being spied upon."

Fear of the unknown is at the core. "If you see a cop at a corner, you can tell from his uniform who he is, what he's looking at, and if you've aroused his suspicions," he says. "But a camera is completely faceless. You don't know who's watching and how the information captured is used - will it wind up on late-night television?"

He notes a significant number of videos in these shows displaying people caught in embarrassing situations come out of Britain, where an extensive network of cameras in public places is rousing a public backlash. Cavoukian noted in her report that U.K. camera operators have caught entertaining themselves by zooming in on attractive women. "If you're going to outsource surveillance to a bunch of badly-paid guys locked in dark rooms, they're going to see more bums than bombs," agrees Fraser.

He concedes that automating the enforcement of policies and procedures around surveillance with PET technology rather than relying on fallible human operators to refrain from misusing the information offers some comfort. But he warns this may have the unintended effect of increasing video surveillance. "Unfortunately, this stuff makes it more acceptable to put video cameras all over the place, and by making it better and safer with less intrusive technology, it may ironically lead to more surveillance."

1 comment:

Kevin said...

David, aside from faling to diminish fears of surveillance, are there any actual shortcomings in existing PETs when it comes to actual privacy protection?