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Privacy in Peril?

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James B. Rule, author of Privacy in Peril: How We are Sacrificing a Fundamental Right in Exchange for Security and Convenience is Distinguished Affiliated Scholar at the Center for the Study of Law and Society at the University of California, Berkeley and a former fellow of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University. He is also a winner of the C. Wright Mills Award. Privacy in Peril looks at the legal ways in which our private data is used by the government and private industry. In the original article below Rule looks at a seemingly innocuous effort to track schoolchildren and the issues it raises.

If you increasingly feel that information about your life is taking on a life of its own—collected, monitored, transmitted and used by interests outside your control—you’re probably not paranoid.

A recent story in Information Week tells of a school in Edenthorpe, England, that is experimenting with electronic tracking of its pupils. The idea is to fit their clothing with RFID tags—tiny radio transmitters—that can enable school authorities to monitor people’s whereabouts throughout the school day. RFID technology is already widely in use by retailers to track merchandise within shops and, some suspect, after purchase by customers.

The Edenthorpe effort follows a similar experiment in 2004 in Sutter, California, where the local school sought to have all pupils 9780195307832.jpgwear electronic badges while on school grounds—automating the task of attendance-taking, and presumably making it easy to track those lurking in bathrooms or on the playing fields during class. The Sutter incident triggered an indignant reaction from parents (not to say from the pupils themselves). “Our children are not merchandise”, went one heated objection. Facing vociferous pressure from parents and civil liberties organizations, the Sutter school board dropped the idea.

It’s not clear that the British experiment will succumb to such objections. True, one activist has complained, “… it seems that we are treating children in a way that we have traditionally treated criminals.” But the UK is a country that in recent years has installed more than a million video surveillance cameras in public places. British school children are already routinely being fingerprinted, and many educators and other Brits seem to find these trends reassuring. “The system is not intrusive to the pupil in the slightest,” one Edenthorpe teacher commented in defense of the tracking.

It all depends on what you count as an intrusion, it would seem. Anyone who’s not sleeping through the twenty-first century must notice the constant proliferation of points in everyday life where personal data about our whereabouts or activities are collected. These include the tracking of our supermarket choices; our movements by air or, increasingly, by train or car; our purchases; our access to medical care—and on and on. Collecting such data are both government and private institutions, bent on using the information to shape their dealings with us. This monitoring may have become so much part of our everyday landscape that some may not experience it as intrusion. But it does raise questions of how private a world we want to live in—and what price we pay for living in a world where each moment is so closely tracked.

We don’t have good ways for weighing the goods and bads involved here. Challenged as to exactly why we object to having, say, our supermarket purchases monitored by computerized checkout systems, we may complain that such tracking threatens our privacy. But most of us don’t really consider the detail of what we’re buying such a private matter that we’re inclined to shield our choices from others at the checkout counter. One’s reaction here is not so much that the information on our purchases should never be public—but that it’s collected automatically, systematically, and “unobtrusively”, by institutions who are using it in ways we cannot necessarily anticipate.

Defenders of ever-emerging new forms of monitoring often point out that the data being collected have always been publicly available—and that use of these data has long been expected of the competent authorities. Regarding the tracking of elementary school pupils, they might assert that the whereabouts of students during the school day should hardly be considered “private information” from school staff. Teachers and others have always been expected to monitor that whereabouts—in the interest of pupils’ own well-being.

And yet, there comes a point at which more relentless accomplishment of long-standing aims finally lands us in a qualitatively different world. That world would be one where major institutions can reach down into every personal moment, to enforce any interest or obligation.

Nobody really wants to live in a world like that. Yet we find it hard to draw the line as to which incremental step toward further surveillance is too much. If pupils should expect to be tracked in their movements during the school day, what about a system that would monitor the movements of each of us for the benefit of the police, the IRS, or the Department of Homeland Security? All day, every day?

Recent Comments

  1. […] Privacy in Peril: How We are Sacrificing a Fundamental Right in Exchange for Security and Convenienc… is an important new book by James B. Rule, who also wrote an influential book on privacy in the 1970s: Private Lives and Public Surveillance: Social Control in the Computer Age. Just noting it as a book of interest. I learned about it in Siva Vaidhyanathan’s review article on privacy in the latest Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required), “Naked in the ‘Nonopticon’: Surveillance and marketing combine to strip away our privacy.” Filed under: Privacy, Theory, Web culture by — Rory Litwin @ 8:14 am […]

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