It’s time for coveillance

The concept of privacy is relatively recent. And it has already started to wear thin


There is a deep distrust of government agencies that invoke surveillance privileges—an emotion strangely at odds with our not so distant past when we depended on mutual surveillance for survival.
There is a deep distrust of government agencies that invoke surveillance privileges—an emotion strangely at odds with our not so distant past when we depended on mutual surveillance for survival.

Humans have always lived in groups. We learned, early on, that by living in close proximity we could watch out for each other and greatly improve our odds against predators. Cramped as the living arrangement must have been, it offered the sort of security to the entire tribe that would have been impossible had individuals lived alone. Not only was privacy unheard of, it was an undesirable state of existence that denied the individual the strength of the collective.

Even after humans settled down in towns and cities, little thought was given to notions of privacy. Houses were designed to provide shelter from the elements. Internally, they offered little by way of privacy, designed, as they were, as one big room with no subdivisions.

It wasn’t until the invention of the fireplace that internal walls were introduced to act as support beams for the chimney. Counter-intuitively, the invention of the bed did even less to further the cause of privacy in Europe, as the entire household (servants included) slept together on a single large bed.

It wasn’t until 1710, when the US Post Office Act was passed prohibiting postal authorities from reading the mail before handing them over to addressees, that the notion of a private right over personal communication was articulated.

That law eventually led to serious discussions around the concept of privacy, culminating in Justice Louis Brandeis’s seminal paper in the Harvard Law Review, that articulated the right for the very first time in 1890.

We have, since then, developed finely nuanced positions on privacy around the world, enacting laws that protect our personal privacy and exhort corporations to guard against data breach. Violations of privacy attract significant penalties and we have built an entire jurisprudence around the regulation of sensitive information.

The interplay between privacy and technology has always been strained. New technologies, with potentially deleterious effects on privacy, are almost always cheaper and more convenient than the alternatives.

In the early days of telecommunications, a single telephone connection served an entire neighbourhood. Private telephone conversations were impossible and yet people embraced this new technology, spurring the growth of the industry till today, almost every corner of the planet is connected. This phenomenon has repeated itself over and over again, with each new development in technology—from teleshopping to social media.

Our world today is filled with devices that observe everything we do—from the wearables on our person to the smart devices in our homes and offices. We have allowed them to monitor us, willingly sacrificing personal data in exchange for customized services and data insights.

Mobile communications technologies allow us the benefit of always-on connectivity but at the same time make it easier for law enforcement to intercept conversations and track our movements. Satellites, drones and the network of hundreds and thousands of security cameras that have proliferated around the world, similarly offer up methods by which our public spaces can be observed and aberrant social behaviour identified. When coupled with facial and pattern recognition technology, this acts as a detection system to identify malcontents and take early action.

We are assured that these technologies will only be deployed against terrorist and anti-national elements. Even so, there is a deep distrust of government agencies that invoke surveillance privileges—an emotion strangely at odds with our not so distant past when we depended on mutual surveillance for survival. We clearly don’t trust the motivations of these modern “watchers” in the same way we used to trust our tribe to have our back.

Saturated surveillance is inevitable and rather than rail against this reality we’d do better to find ways to deal with it. One suggestion is to adopt the concept of “coveillance”—a notion designed to break down the asymmetry inherent in modern surveillance by offering everyone—the watcher and the watched—equal access to information. In a coveillant society, everyone has the right to access and benefit from data about themselves but at the same time has the duty to respect the integrity of information and to share it responsibly. By applying open standards to surveillance (in much the same way as we use open source in the context of software) the watchers will, themselves, be watched.

Quixotically, this could take us back to the way things used to be before technological disruption. As a species, we had evolved to protect ourselves by tracking each other in an equitable and symmetrical way—to operate in a society where everything we did was visible to everyone else and where we had no secrets from each other. Seen from that perspective, it is privacy that is the aberration and coveillance, the natural state in which we are designed to thrive.

Now, all we need to do is train our technology to do that for us.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal. Ex Machina is a column on technology, law and everything in between.

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