Privacy is a unique commodity. As individuals, we expect privacy in some aspects of our lives, while in other aspects we have no problem with sharing personal information. At what point is the line drawn about what information should be shared? And when should it be protected and private?
I am reminded of a writing lesson I developed with my students in a community college class. After reading brief articles about radio-frequency identification (RFID) and security cameras employed at public high schools, students were asked to evaluate the benefits and drawbacks of each technology. I assigned students different roles – administrators, parents, students, and staff/faculty members. I asked them to imagine themselves in these different roles and come up with reasons to support the installation or adoption of either RFID (badges for students) or security cameras in classrooms. What were some possible reasons to oppose one of the technologies? And support the other?At the center of this lesson was an examination of balancing privacy and safety, and students were able to think more deeply about the subject rather than reducing it to a broad generalization about the inevitability of omnipresent surveillance or a resistance to all attempts at surveillance.
The complex relationship between privacy, safety, and sharing was discussed in a way that allowed students to see perspectives that may have differed from their own, and they were able to see that there were positive and negative trade-offs in choosing one over another. Pew Research Center found that attitudes towards information sharing and technology were complex, just like the attitudes of my students, in their research report on Privacy and Information Sharing. In the report, authors Lee Rainie and Dana Page (2016), give six hypothetical scenarios and ask participants if the conditions for sharing information were acceptable, unacceptable, or if it depended on additional factors.
One scenario involved installing cameras with facial recognition technology to curb the occurrence of workplace thefts. Under the conditions outlined, 54% of participants found the installation of the cameras acceptable, while 24% found it unacceptable, and 21% said “it depends.” Read more about the office surveillance cameras scenario here. I found it surprising that so many people were willing to be recorded with facial recognition technology that was stored for an indefinite amount of time. I agreed with the minority who found it unacceptable. Among those who said yes, there was an attitude of resignation about being watched, as one participant noted, “My employer could choose to do this, but I might be unhappy about it. The boss is the boss.” Those who found it unacceptable perceived it as an intrusion into the workplace and that it had the potential to be misused, “This could very easily be abused and would hinder performance if every employee felt surveilled all the time.”
Clearly there is no simple answer to how individuals perceive sharing and protecting information, but as technology continues to advance and provide the ability to collect more information, the question that needs to follow is should we?