Home / Opinion / Views /  Lessons from photography on the privacy-innovation trade-off

As any photographer will tell you, pretty much all it takes to make good images is mastery over two levers of light—aperture and shutter speed. An image is considered to be well exposed if it has enough light to illuminate the important features in the frame without casting ugly shadows. However, in order to create an artistic image, photographers must learn to control the mechanisms that allow light to enter the lens.

They basically have two dials that they can play with—the size of the aperture through which light enters the camera and the speed at which the shutter opens and closes to let light in. Skilful adjustment of both these dials can produce images that are way beyond the capabilities of plain vanilla point-and-shoot cameras.

For instance, by slowing down the shutter speed, photographers can create ‘motion blur’—a technique that is the secret behind all those images of milky white waterfalls where frothing water has been blurred to such an extent that all that’s left is creamy white textures of motion—and produce images of city streets at night where all that is visible against the cityscape are streaks of red and yellow tail lights speeding away from the camera. Opening up the aperture as wide as possible, on the other hand, allows the photographer to blur the background so that the subject pops crisply into clear view against a buttery backdrop.

Even if, in theory, you know what it takes to make images like this, what is not immediately obvious is that aperture and shutter speed are reciprocally related. The more you open up your aperture, the faster your shutter speed has to be for the image to remain perfectly exposed—and vice versa. Which means that if you want motion blur in your image, you have to forsake that smooth background—just as if you want your foreground to pop, it can never be with an artistically blurred subject. It is only once you properly understand these trade-offs that you start becoming truly intentional with the images you create.

Reciprocal relationships are all around us and deeply influence the choices we make. When we are ill, the treatment we receive involves, more often than not, the careful weighing of the immediate benefits that the medicines we’ve been prescribed will have against the side-effects they might cause. Sportsmen know that the demands they make on their body for a crucial match or sporting event often come with consequences they will probably have to endure for the rest of their lives. Even in our day-to-day interactions, almost every decision we take involves the weighing of risk and reward—to a point where the final decision boils down to a personal assessment of what will achieve the best possible outcome under our personal circumstances.

Given this fact, it still surprises me how frequently our policy endeavours end up overlooking the impact that a given regulation can have on adjacent fields that share a reciprocal relationship with it. By only focusing on achieving the best possible policy outcome in the narrow area of our specific intent, we, more often than not, end up causing unintended consequences in other reciprocally-related areas.

Take data, for example. Concerns around personal privacy have forced us to optimize our laws to protect privacy above all else. As a result, legislation ensures that there are only limited purposes to which our personal data can be put and only few persons with whom it can be shared. Anyone permitted to use our data can only use as much of it as is necessary to achieve the stated purpose and can retain it for no longer than is absolutely necessary. Regulations such as these achieve the objective of privacy protection by drastically limiting access to personal data, thereby ensuring that it can’t be put to harmful use. What we have not realized is that restricting the availability of data can have reciprocal consequences on innovation based on that data.

Modern data technologies have made it possible for us to derive considerable value from personal data. Many of the services that we have come to rely on today—the recommendation engines that suggest books for us to read and movies for us to watch, the navigation systems that alert us to leave earlier than planned when congestion starts to build up on a route to our next meeting, and the tools that make it possible for us to search through photos in our digital libraries to find the people or things we’re looking for—all use personal information that we have contributed to assist us in ways that have become so much part of our modern lives that we will struggle to function without them.

Regulators need to appreciate the reciprocal relationship that exists between data protection and innovation. They need to acknowledge that when data regulations favour privacy, they often do so at the cost of innovation. And vice versa. Above all, what they need to accept is that, no matter how hard they try, they will never be able to achieve both extremes.

I find it helpful to use a metaphor to explain this. I like to think that policymakers have dials they can set—with innovation at one end and privacy at the other. Depending on the outcome they want to achieve, they need to set the dial at a precise spot between these two extremes that results in the most appropriate regulation.

But everything they do, policymakers must recognize, will be at the cost of something else. And so the trade-offs they make have to be well analysed and justified.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan

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