Personal vs Public: Rethinking Privacy

An incident I recently witnessed in my neighbourhood has caused to me to rethink how we should be defining “privacy”. Data protection is one thing, but when our privacy can be compromised via the direct connection between the digital and analog worlds, all the cyber security in the world doesn’t protect us against unwanted nuisance, intrusion or even invasion of our personal space.

Pressefotografen mit KamerasScenario

As I was walking along the street, I saw another pedestrian stop outside a house, and from the pavement, use her smart phone to take a photograph through the open bedroom window. Regardless of who was inside, and irrespective of what they were doing (assuming nothing illegal was occurring), I would consider this to be an invasion of privacy.

For example, it would be very easy to share the picture via social media, along with date and location data. From there, it could be possible to search land registries and other public records to ascertain the identity of the owners and/or occupants. And with a little more effort, you might have enough information to stalk or even cyber-bully them.

Privacy Law

Photographing people on private property (e.g., in their home) from public property (e.g., on the street outside) is not an offence, although photographers must not cause a nuisance nor interfere with the occupants’ right of quiet enjoyment. Our current privacy laws largely exclude this breach of privacy (unless it relates to disclosure of personal data by a regulated entity). Even rules about the use of drones are driven by safety rather than privacy concerns.

Since the late 1990’s, and the advent of spam and internet hacking, there have been court decisions that update the law of trespass to include what could be defined as “digital trespass”, although some judges have since tried to limit such actions to instances where actual harm or damage has been inflicted on the plaintiff. (Interestingly, in Australia, an act of trespass does not have to be “intentional”, merely “negligent”.)

Apart from economic and financial loss that can arise from internet fraud and identity theft, invasion of privacy via public disclosure of personal data could lead to personal embarrassment, damage to reputation or even ostracism. (In legal terms emotional stress falls within “pain and suffering”).

Data Protection Law

The Australian Privacy Principles contained within the 1988 Privacy Act apply to government agencies, private companies with annual turnover of $3m or more, and any organisations trading in personal data, dealing with credit information or providing health services. There are specific provisions relating to the use and misuse of government-derived identifiers such as medical records and tax file numbers.

The main purpose of the privacy legislation is to protect “sensitive” information, and to prevent such data being used unlawfully to identify specific individuals. At a minimum, this means keeping personal data such as dates of birth, financial records or hospital files in a secure format.

Some Practical Definitions

The following are not legal definitions, but hopefully offer a practical framework to understand how we might categorise such data, and manage our obligations towards it:

“Confidential”

Secret information that must not be disclosed to anyone unless there is a legal obligation or permission to do so. (There are also specific issues and exceptions relating to “classified information”, public interest matters, whistleblower protection and Freedom of Information requests.)

“Private”

Information which is not for public or general consumption, although the data itself may not be “confidential”. May still be subject to legal protection or rights, such as the right of adopted children to discover the identity of their birth parents, or the right of someone not to be identified as a lottery winner.

“Personal”

Data that relates to, or can specifically identify a particular individual. An increasing issue for Big Data, because data that otherwise resides in separate locations can now be re-connected using triangulation techniques – scrape enough websites and drill down into enough databases, and you could probably find my shoe size.

“Public”

Anything that has been published, or easily discoverable through open search or public database retrieval (but, for example, does not include my past transactions on eBay unless I have chosen to disclose them to other users). My date of birth may be a matter of record, but unless you have authorised access to the relevant database or registry, you won’t be able to discover it and you certainly shouldn’t disclose it without my permission.

Copyright Law

One further dimension to the debate is copyright law – the ownership and related rights associated with any creative works, including photographs. All original content is copyright (except those works deemed to be in the “public domain”), and nearly all copyright vests with the person who created the work (unless they have legally assigned their copyright, or the material was created in the course of their employment).

In the scenario described above, the photographer would hold copyright in the picture they took. However, if the photograph included the image of an artwork or even a framed letter hanging on the wall, they could not reproduce the photograph without the permission of the person who owned the copyright in those original works. In some (limited) situations, a photograph of a building may be subject to the architect’s copyright in the design.

Curiosity is not enough justification to share

My personal view on all this is that unless there is a compelling reason to make something public, protecting our personal privacy takes precedent over the need to post, share or upload pictures of other people in their private residence, especially any images taken without the occupants’ knowledge or permission.

Just to clarify, I’m not referring to surveillance and monitoring by the security services and law enforcement agencies, for which there are understandable motives (and appropriate safeguards).

I’m saying that if we showed a little more respect for each others’ personal space and privacy (particularly within our homes, not just in cyberspace) then we might show a little more consideration to our neighbours and fellow citizens.

Next week: It’s OK to say “I don’t know”

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