One of the most significant developments for privacy law over the past few years has been the rapid erosion of privacy in public. As recently as a decade ago, we benefitted from a fair degree of de facto privacy when walking the streets of a city or navigating a shopping mall. To be sure, we were in plain sight; someone could have seen and followed us; and we would certainly be noticed if we took off our clothes. After all, a public space was always less private than a home. Yet with the notable exception of celebrities, we would have generally benefitted from a fair degree of anonymity or obscurity. A great deal of effort, such as surveillance by a private investigator or team of FBI agents, was required to reverse that. [This, by the way, isn’t a post about US v. Jones, which I will write about later].
Now, with mobile tracking devices always on in our pockets; with GPS enabled cars; surveillance cameras linked to facial recognition technologies; smart signage (billboards that target passersby based on their gender, age, or eventually identity); and devices with embedded RFID chips – privacy in public is becoming a remnant of the past.
Location tracking is already a powerful tool in the hands of both law enforcement and private businesses, offering a wide array of localized services from restaurant recommendations to traffic reports. Ambient social location apps, such as Glancee and Banjo, are increasingly popular, creating social contexts based on users’ location and enabling users to meet and interact.
Facial recognition is becoming more prevalent. This technology too can be used by law enforcement for surveillance or by businesses to analyze certain characteristics of their customers, such as their age, gender or mood (facial detection) or downright identify them (facial recognition). One such service, which was recently tested, allows individuals to check-in to a location on Facebook through facial scanning.
Essentially, our face is becoming equivalent to a cookie, the ubiquitous online tracking device. Yet unlike cookies, faces are difficult to erase. And while cellular phones could in theory be left at home, we very rarely travel without them. How will individuals react to a world in which all traces of privacy in public are lost?