I think that there is some confusion about the concept of privacy in a public setting.  It appears to me that some people really believe that they can walk around, let’s say on the campus where they work or go to school, and that their trip will be unnoticed.  Let me tell you a story.

A few weeks ago, I was walking to work with my wife (we both work at the same place) and on the way, there was a piece of sidewalk that had cracked and was raised up about an inch.  I managed to hit this at just the wrong angle, twisted my ankle and went down like a sack of potatoes.  I was more embarrassed than hurt (or so I thought), so after a bit, I finally got myself up and limped off to my office.  As the day went on, I was in more and more pain so at about 3 PM I called my wife and told her it was time to go to the emergency room and see if I had broken something.  Nothing was broken, but I did end up with a nice pair of crutches and an air-cast.

Now, back to privacy in public.  Since the accident had happened on campus, I decided to file a claim to get back my out of pocket expenses.  Part of that process requires an accident report from our Public Safety Department.  I deal with them all of the time, so I called one of my friends there and he asked me where and when it happened.  The next day, an officer shows up in my office with a CD, and on it was a video of me walking down the sidewalk with my wife, hitting the crack and falling.  We have over 2000 cameras around campus that pretty much record everyone’s coming and going.

Another example of this is the Canadian women that lost her lottery ticket.  The time limit was running out, so the lottery people tracked her down by viewing the video recorded by the ticket seller and figuring out by timestamp who had purchased the winning ticket.

In the old days, you could walk around with a pocket full of cash and pretty much buy anything you needed and no one would be able to reconstruct where you went or what you did unless they were following you.  Today, if you walk down the street and buy a stick of gum, if someone (let’s say, the NSA) needed or wanted to know badly enough, your face was probably on several different video systems and the sale and time recorded by inventory control (even though it was a cash transaction.)  The idea of “going off the grid” and still interacting in modern society is becoming just that – an idea.

I think that people understand this in the digital world, everything that you do leaves bread crumbs (or digital logs) behind, and a motivated person or agency with access and skills could track your every move.  The thing that I think people are missing is that the same thing is happening in the analog (physical) world.

I am not speaking out about this one way or the other – in my two examples, it turned out to be very useful.  I could imagine that bad guys or spies would feel differently.  If you want to have complete privacy, you will need to buy a hat, fake eyeglasses/nose/mustache and then walk off to a deserted island or other secluded place – just don’t smile for the cameras on the way.

For more on privacy read Mark Rasch’s Don’t Spy on Me, I’d Rather be Safe

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