Privacy, Accessibility, and Notability

As a result of some long-ago and more recent conversations with smart friends of mine, I came up with some interesting thoughts about privacy.

I don’t fully understand the legal umbrella of privacy, but it seems to me that there are a few distinct concepts that it would be useful to introduce into quasi-legal/common-sense discussions of privacy, and potentially to the legal arena too, in the long run.

First, a brief rundown of the concepts, before we get into their interactions and complications.

Privacy. Things that are private are things that you do on private property not visible from a public space, or public spaces where you have “a reasonable expectation of privacy”, and that you don’t speak or publish about in publicly-accessible forums — or if you do, those forums are specifically unconnected to your “real identity”. Also, things are private which are defined by law to be private, but that’s less important here than the nontechnical definition.

Accessibility (or Ease of Access). Things that are accessible are things that are easy for the average person or user to find. This is not a great term because “accessible” also has a technical binary definition related to privacy: if information is not at all accessible, it is private. But bear with me for a while, and suggest a better word if you have one.

Notability. Things that are notable are things that a substantial percentage of people (in the whole population or some subgroup) is interested in knowing about.

Anonymity. Being out in public without being notable.

The complexities of online “privacy” often come up when something besides privacy is involved, namely accessibility or notability. In my old journal, I wrote an entry about Google Street View (and Facebook News Feed, to some extent) in which I used the terms “theoretical privacy” and “actual privacy” rather than using the word “accessibility”, although I did notice, on re-reading the comments, that I start to talk about information being “(easily) accessible”.

GSV and FNF are iconic examples of things that “raised privacy concerns” without actually doing anything to change whether information was private or not. All the information on GSV and FNF was always available (to anyone who set foot in a place, in the case of GSV, and to anyone who previously had access to the info, in the case of FNF). What they did do was make it incredibly easy to find things out that previously had required a lot of effort to find out: what a place looks like at ground level, and what your friends are doing on Facebook. So the information became accessible (in the sense defined above) where before it had been inaccessible.

Notability is implicated in most problems where accessibility becomes an issue. If information is not notable (no one is really interested in knowing it), it doesn’t matter if it is easily accessible or not: no one cares, either way. Dave sent me a link today (which spawned this whole thought process on my part) about a guy whose information suddenly became notable. The guy didn’t mind, but it gave him pause for thought, as I’m sure it would most of us.

In the FNF and GSV cases, nothing became differently notable, just differently (more easily) accessible. This is closer to a form of privacy loss, because it makes something notable easier to find, and if something notable is found, you have much easier access to it. BoingBoing readers had many things to say about it, some of them wondering if we need new laws, or a new area of law, to deal with accessibility of information, since it isn’t covered by traditional privacy law.

Personal conduct in public, combined with YouTube and other video-upload services, illustrates a different set of circumstances. Most of us who live in largish urban areas, most of the time we’re in public, are anonymous: out in public without anyone particularly caring who we are. We feel restricted in our activities by our visibility, but don’t need to worry very much about anyone caring what we’re up to, even if we’re eating cookies when we’re supposed to be on a diet, or smoking when we said we quit. The situation isn’t the same in smaller communities, of course. In small communities, it’s hard to be out in public without being known.

Even in larger communities, recording and uploading a person’s behavior to a video site like YouTube makes it more accessible, but doesn’t necessarily make it more notable (consider all the incredibly boring YouTube videos that no one watches). Likewise, a person’s behavior becoming an object of attention/controversy would make it more notable but not more accessible: you’d still have to actually find the person to see what they were doing. When you get the simultaneous combination of accessibility and notability, you get something like the recent BART shooting video + controversy or the Caltrain cyclist arrest. But another worrying situation is when something goes up earlier, and then later becomes notable (like the guy’s photos as linked above, or like Facebook photos of undergrads drinking which get them in trouble).

How do we live our lives in a world that is increasingly a participatory panopticon? How do we act in public? What do we publicize and what do we keep private when things could become far more accessible or notable in the future than we ever imagined?

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