I emailed Matt Ehling — President of Public Record Media* and Twin Cities civil liberties and government data expert — the following question: “Matt, where are we?” His response, which focuses significantly on the changing nature of privacy, is published in its entirety here:
The constants and easy assumptions of our world are quickly changing. This is not a reference to cursory and inevitable generational change, but a recognition that there are deeper currents at work that challenge the basic premises around which we structure our reality. Ideas such as anonymity in public spaces, the expectation that we can remain unobserved in our private moments at home, and our long-time assumption of prominence at the top of the cognitive “food chain” are all under duress.
The assault is driven by technological advancements such as facial recognition software; thermal imaging devices that can “see” through walls; high-resolution, satellite or drone-mounted cameras; and future autonomous weapons systems that can move, assess, surveil, and even kill on their own volition.
Some have been long-aware of these challenges. In 2008, I was contacted by an attorney from the West Coast who worked in the employ of a wealthy computer programmer-turned civil-liberties advocate. The attorney flew around the country filing federal lawsuits on privacy matters, and making contact with the handful of people who write about, advocate around, and otherwise cover such issues. Over a mid-morning breakfast at an empty downtown hotel, he talked at length about the day when facial recognition software will become sophisticated enough – and networks of public and private security cameras will become pervasive enough – that public anonymity in urban environments will be impossible.
And why stop that thought experiment there? Once the FAA fully integrates drones into domestic airspace, will it be ever again be reasonable to assume that you are unobserved – even in the most remote reaches of the nation? Such discussion used to be grist for paranoids, but we are now at the point where actual public policy is being formulated around these issues.
My inclination is to always ensure that I have a place at that table; to act to prevent the worst excesses from coming to pass. The true challenge of this time is to find enough people who recognize the seriousness of the moment, and the enormity of the work that needs to be done. The next question: What do we leave behind?
Matt’s recent article on the subject “Drone controversy highlights the important of government transparency” was published in MinnPost. *I represent PRM in certain of its legal efforts.