Debate: Shock the System – Between Public and Private

On Wednesday evening the Museum held a stimulating public debate on the issues surrounding our increasing adoption of technology for enhanced mobility, safety and communication, and the equally increasing sacrifices we make for such conveniences, namely our right to privacy.

Sam Mullins, the Museum’s Director, opened the debate with an introduction to our current temporary exhibition Sense and the City: smart, connected and on the move, which explores how technology is changing the way we interact with the city.[i] Broadcaster and author, Robert Elms[ii] chaired the panel which included the London Mayor’s Director of Environment and Digital London Kulveer Ranger,[iii] the Evening Standard’s Comment Editor Andrew Neather, [iv] the  and award-winning documentary filmmaker David Bond.[v]

Robert opened the debate with a summary of the ways in which we are surveyed in the UK today, noting that we are monitored by over 1.8m CCTV cameras, evaluated through our use of store loyalty cards, identified through face recognition and followed by satellites. On average we make 68 CCTV appearances a day, making us quite literally one of the most watched societies in the world.

Such surveillance has today thrown us headlong into what Kulveer Ranger termed a ‘Wild West’ of data, where the sheer volume creates a chaotic digital cacophony that is almost impossible to make any sense of. Despite this the desire by companies, organisations and government bodies to obtain this data is increasing exponentially. This is unsurprising as the collective accumulation of such data is slowly painting a picture of our digital psychology. Its value therefore can be equated with the California Gold Rush, with our information bargained for, sold-off and eventually melted down. In this metaphorical world, it will be the Social Media ‘merchants’ and not the Organisational ‘miners’ who will reap the greatest rewards.

During the debate it seemed evident that we must, willingly or reluctantly, handover such data and thereby sacrifice parts of our privacy in return for society’s benefits. But what do we sacrifice and what do we retain as sacred? This was the question which encompassed two main areas of discussion – ‘Dataveillance’, focussing particularly on CCTV, and Social Media.

Dataveillance can be broadly defined as ‘the systematic monitoring of people’s actions or communications through the application of information technology.’ (Clark, 1988) Such surveillance is typified by the use of CCTV. One American member of the audience at the debate noted our obsession in the UK with the CCTV camera, viewing its presence as the prognosticator of an Orwellian state ominously over-obsessed with security. Indeed, it was discovered in 2009, through a Freedom of Information request made by the BBC to local authorities in the UK, that both the Shetland Islands Council (Scotland) and Corby Borough Council (England) had more CCTV cameras than the San Francisco Police Department, despite being among the smallest local authorities in the UK.  In London the borough which boasted the highest number of CCTV cameras was Wandsworth, with just under four cameras per 1,000 people – a number which exceed those of the police departments of Boston Massachusetts, Johannesburg and Dublin City Council combined. While exact numbers are not known, it is estimated that London has just under 8,000 CCTV cameras, which seems to put Paris’ count of just over 300 to shame.

But why this obsession? Is it because the British population, for the most part, still trust their governing body? David Bond noted in the debate that in Germany, due to its relatively recent experience with a dictatorial and ruthless state, the people are much more sceptical about relinquishing their privacy in return for assumed security. We do not have such a history and therefore view ‘dataveillance’ as intrinsic to our very security. Our level of trust is both variable and debatable however the truth may be that we are no more accepting of Big Brother than any other society or culture, but rather have allowed ourselves, as Kulveer noted, to simply ‘sleep-walk’ into the current system which has become invisible through ubiquity.

Social Media
Social media and privacy seem somewhat mutually exclusive terms, and yet in no other area has the defence of privacy (at least in recent times) been so highly fought over. One need only recall the various scandals to have plagued Facebook when it decided to change its privacy settings on the site, thereby affecting the visibility of users’ ‘personal’ information.

While many Facebook users – around 845 million of them – have several hundred ‘friends’ to whom they freely reveal their private lives, others see Facebook as a potential window to the world of employment. David Bond noted that Harvard graduates he spoke to did not tell the truth about their lives on Facebook for fear such information could be used against them, the ‘truth’ being of course that we are all flawed and make mistakes. Of course, the Harvard graduates here are not exceptional. We all ‘brand’ ourselves in some way within our own social media spheres, projecting a more refined, cultured or intelligent self. We want to believe – as much as we want to convince others – that we are indeed better than we are. However those who do choose (through naivety or for catharsis) to reveal such truths may grow to wish they hadn’t. Bond commented that he was able to outgrow his own youthful political beliefs and strange haircuts in a way his children will most likely be unable to.

With regards to how social media defines our information stream, Andrew Neather commented that the current Levenson inquiry would likely result in regulatory conditions which would curtail the freedom of the press, thereby making Twitter – unfettered by such ethical restrictions – a dominant force in news coverage. Attaining ‘the highest ethical and professional standards’ (as stated on the Levenson inquiry website) will likely not provide us with the meaty information we so desire and lead to the atrophication of traditional press coverage as we know it. As Lewis Carroll said ‘The things most people want to know about are usually none of their business.’

Has the very notion of privacy now become synonymous with the more ominous notion of secrecy and, if so, will those wishing to maintain their privacy be increasingly viewed with suspicion…after all, if you have nothing to hide, then you have nothing to fear, right?

[i] This debate was part of a series of events to support the Sense and the City: smart, connected and on the move exhibition which looks at our past conceptions about what the future would look like, and asks questions about how technology might change our lives in years to come. The exhibition closes on 18 March 2012.

[ii] Robert Elms presents a long running radio show on BBC London 94.9.  The show features reports, discussions, and call-ins about Greater London, the history, architecture, geography, city planning, and language of London. He is also the author of several books including, The Way We Wore, which charts the changing fashions of his own youth during the 1960s to 1980s, linking them with the social history of the times.

[iii] Kulveer Ranger oversees a portfolio of responsibilities encompassing quality of life (including greening London, air quality and energy efficiency) and supporting the development of the hi-tech business sector across the capital on behalf of the Mayor of London. He is also responsible for cycling, including the cycle hire scheme. Kulveer was previously the Mayor’s Transport Advisor between 2008 and 2011, sitting on the board of Transport for London and chairing the Mayor’s River Concordat. Before joining the Mayor’s Office, Kulveer spent ten years in management consultancy. He is also a former Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party and was an advisor to two Shadow Cabinet members in Opposition.

[iv] Andrew Neather has been the Comment Editor, chief leader writer and wine critic of the Evening Standard since 2004. He writes especially on London, transport and environmental issues. He was formerly civil service speechwriter to prime minister Tony Blair and to home secretaries David Blunkett and Jack Straw. Prior to that he worked as a writer and editor for Friends of the Earth, the Labour Party and the US United Auto Workers. He was educated at Pembroke College, Cambridge and Duke University, North Carolina, from where he obtained a PhD in US history. He lives in south London and tweets as @hernehillandy

[v] David Bond is an award-winning director, producer and writer of documentary, commercial and short film projects. He graduated from the Met Film School in 2004 and since then has completed various film projects exploring social and political themes.  Erasing David is David’s first feature documentary, and explores how much information is available about David and his family in the public domain.David put himself under surveillance and attempted to disappear, going on the run and hiring two private detectives to track him down. The results forced him to contemplate the meaning of privacy – and the loss of it. David co-runs production company Green Lions with his creative partner Ashley Jones.

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