Privacy in the information age

The increased speed and ease of information capture and transmission is contributing to the number of privacy related news stories.

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Information behaviours must be adapted

The speed and ease of distribution and global reach of new technologies mean that how we protect privacy through laws, technology, and perhaps our own behaviour has to adapt. Updates on social networking sites may feel like ephemeral pub banter, but can spread at an unprecedented rate and linger on websites, databases, and search engine indexes with few practical ways of getting them removed completely. In response, companies, including Google, offering services such as online reputation management have sprung up, while politicians in the EU debate a 'right to be forgotten', but political processes are slow and once a technology is released, it is hard to retract. With a few clicks a phone camera picture can be uploaded and on its way round the world. While this can challenge injustice, for example by allowing footage of police corruption to be disseminated before the authorities can suppress it, the same tool can be used to circulate embarrassing photos of ordinary people or to breach copyright. Apple are investigating ways of adapting their phones so that they cannot be used to film live music, but presumably these could be used by repressive regimes to stop protesters taking pictures.  

What we consider to be our personal privacy has to be reconsidered as our identity and individuality are caught up in a wave of information that permeates our daily lives. The digital footprints that we now leave behind as we shop, travel, and browse online can be stored, distributed, and transmitted around the world, creating an ocean of data about our personal lives that is accessible to people and to processing on a scale unimaginable in the past. Should we reclaim ownership of this data, and who could we trust to give us the user-centred technologies we would need to manage it for ourselves?

At the same time, developments in neuroscience are leading towards the ability to detect the formation of thoughts in the brain. At the moment, the tools cannot do much more that confirm the obvious, but as the technologies develop, they may enable our thoughts to be recorded and published as we think them. How we constrain the use of our personal data today could one day inform how we protect our most personal experiences in the future.

Fran Alexander, Taxonomy Manager, Information and Archives, BBC. The views expressed are her own personal views and do not necessarily reflect those of her employer.

Photo courtesy of nathan o'nions via Flickr.

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