Visualising privacy

Privacy seems to have an image problem: it seems acceptable for it to be sidelined and sometimes even ridiculed in public. We hear the Stalinesque quote “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” as often as a cheesy seasonal pop song. This thoughtless and unfortunate phrase is effectively saying “You have no privacy, get over it!” (as the views of one well-known large, monolithic database vendor apparently put it).

It’s the kind of ugly phrase I thought had died out with the fall of the Berlin wall and Checkpoint Charlie. In an age when more and more data is stored on more and more systems, our privacy is becoming more important – not less. A security compromise in the past would have led to just some of our personal information leaking and being compromised. Today, the same type of security lapse can lead to a compromise of all of our personal information. It’s one of the reasons why identity-related crime is on the sort of upward trend that most companies would love to report as revenue growth in their annual reports.

I’ve been wondering how if I was making a TV programme I would bring the topic alive, to make people understand the very real relevance it has to their lives. I use a slide when talking to local government leaders and others about the interplay of technology and society. It’s shown below – although of course, it builds when I’m talking rather than being presented, as here, as a static graphic.

Of course, with computer graphics becoming so lifelike and sophisticated, the images would look better than this. We could see the actual objects and information swirling around someone’s head, perhaps something like this:

What strikes me however is that this is no longer an abstract discussion about a theoretical TV programme and how it might bring privacy alive in a way that connects with viewers. It’s about the future of our society: this type of system will become possible in real time. The combination of CCTV and the databases that already exist will make such visualisations happen in real time: automated street profiling. So that when we walk down our streets we will not only be watched, but those watching will see swirling around us visualisations and contextual information of everything known about us across the many databases on which our personal information is stored and stolen.

And then tell me that privacy doesn’t matter. And that the way we design technology doesn’t matter. And try to keep a straight face as you do so. But please, don’t say “If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear” ever again. Not unless you’re in Panto playing the part of a camped-up Uncle Joe of course … because that’s the only place such claims belong: not out here in the real world.


This blog post originally appeared when I hosted NTOUK on SimpleBlog. It’s one of several I’m retrieving and posting here to bring together my posts in one place. The content, date and time shown for this post replicates the original. Many links are, inevitably, broken: where I can, I’ll substitute ones that work, particularly where the Internet Archive Wayback Machine has captured the content originally linked to.

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