One of the more interesting questions about the future of privacy revolves, I think, around changing cultural perceptions of the private. By this I mean that what we see as private today, we might not consider as private tomorrow. Examples are readily available: not too long ago, a diagnosis of cancer was something to be kept secret, not shared with neighbors, friends, and sometimes even family. It was private. Today, that is the case to far lesser extent.
The issue of perceptions is an important one, not least because the law (in the US) sometimes rests on what the reasonable person’s expectations of privacy are. In a recent court case in the United States, the judges ruled that the reasonable person does not expect the authorities to know exactly where he has driven over the period of a month. As a result, they deemed as inadmissible evidence gleaned from a GPS device attached to a suspect’s car without a warrant.
This, of course, raises the question as to what cultural or social conditions might precipitate a change in this expectation. If Facebook Places wins over the hearts of all Facebook users, and we become used to logging our location ourselves throughout the day, would this constitute a lessening of the expectation to locational privacy? Would this make the use of GPS devices by the police without a warrant less unexpected by the reasonable person?
The flip side of this is that the private sector carries out completely legal activities that the reasonable person really might not expect (such as his shopping habits on one site influencing the adverts he sees on another, completely unrelated site (unrelated in every way apart from having contracts with the same ad provider, of course)). I’m not a lawyer, and I might be missing the point of these reasonable expectations, but it does appear to me that (1) what is reasonable can change over time, and (2) that which we might reasonably expect not to be going on is already going on.
I just read about yet another location-based service. This one is called Glympse, and it looks very cool. The privacy issues with location=-based services are so blatant and manifold. What is also clear is that users are concerned about their privacy, and so Glympse goes to great lengths to assure us that we have nothing to worry about.
The way it works is that you send a “glympse” to someone, or a group of people, or all of your Facebook friends. They receive a link. When they click on that link, they can see a map with your location on it. If you are moving, they can see that too. If two people send each other glympses on their phones, then I guess they should be able to walk in each other’s direction until they find each other.
The people at Glympse have built privacy into this app in a number of ways. One is that you can define how long you want to be visible to system for. The default is 15 minutes; the maximum is 4 hours. Another is that you decide who can see your location.
I think this is an example of how a company is showing awareness of the privacy needs or wishes of its potential end users, and is designing privacy into what is clearly a privacy-threatening application.