Just Because It Is Observable, Should It Be Seen?

The novel “Clan of The Cave Bear” includes a prehistoric people who all share the same cave. There are no walls. They use rocks to delineate the private space allocated to each family unit. Children quickly learn that, while it is possible to see through the invisible walls, the appropriate answer is to see but not process what one clearly might see. The eye works, the brain disconnects.

“Clan of the Cave Bear” teaches that, sometimes, not seeing what is right in front of your face is the right answer.

Over millennia, the concept of minding one’s own business has evolved into the concept of the public common and private space. The public common is the town common, public square, front lawn, shopping mall and train station where everything and everyone is observable. Activities on the front lawn are freely visible to all, but what goes on behind one’s front door is private.

It was so simple in the physical world. Doors and walls are barriers. Windows may have shades.

The creation of writing and records made defining what is public and private much more difficult. In the United States, a check in the mail is considered private, but the same check moving through a check processing system is part of the public common.

The digital world is considerably more complex. The Internet has made every pause over a pixel seeable and processed against experiences related to other pauses over other pixels. The Internet of Things has taken the pause over a pixel to new dimensions. In the virtual world, the cave with no walls helps define what should be seen but not processed. But there are appreciably more temptations to truly see.

We, as a privacy community, have attempted to manage chaos by controlling collection and use. However, data is not collected in the manner it was in the analog past, when checks in the mail were being differentiated from check processing. Data just is – it is the product of a world that is sensor rich.

In a world comprised of sensors, the rules must be more nuanced than the rules that worked for the child in the cave. A public common that guides when data may be seen and considered and is based on the full range of rights and interests of many different stakeholders still needs to be defined.

The data from a fitness device may be very relevant and appropriate for a cardiologist conducting research. A marketer may consider that same data relevant, but it may not be appropriate for a marketer to have that data.

On this Privacy Day, 2016, I challenge others to join me in defining the ethical frame for this new public common where everything is visible, but not everything should be seen, observed and considered by all. Think about your smart phone that senses your motion, the car mirror that tests your concentration, and the fitness device that measures your passion. That is all data, and it is data that pertains to an individual. That data is not collected in a traditional sense. The data just is.

I am suggesting that one of our challenges as a privacy community is to begin defining this public common in a very nuanced fashion. It is key to our work at the IAF, from holistic governance to dynamic data obscurity. My privacy day ask is that you join us in this journey.

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