Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Privacy and Safety Rights

We are at the beginning of a world filled with powerful and inexpensive technologies, and having to deal with societal issues that result. These discussions are centered on our right to privacy, but often lack any discussion on any other rights, specifically, our right to safety. I discount any course of action resulting from a one-sided opinion, which by its very nature will, of course, sound like a good idea. But more useful is a balanced analysis which includes both sides of an argument and looks for common-sense compromises.

When looking at any issue, I like to start by looking at the core assumptions, in this case the right to privacy and the right to safety, to make sure they’re well-grounded.

The right to privacy is addressed partially by the Bill of Rights, which protects the privacy of beliefs, unreasonable searches and personal information. A variety of other laws and court decisions protect other facets of privacy, but at best our right to privacy, by law, does not cover everything in all situations.

The right to safety is guaranteed by the Ohio Constitution, which states “All men are, by nature, free and independent, and have certain inalienable rights, among which are those of enjoying and defending life and liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and seeking and obtaining happiness and safety”. So both of these rights seem well-grounded, however, no right is absolute, for example, our right to free speech is curtailed by prohibiting slander, inciting a riot, or threatening the President. So don’t expect your rights to privacy or safety to be absolute.

In many cases, our right to privacy is a key component of our right to safety. But the key here is that both rights are “ours”. The issue becomes when one right is “ours” and the other is “yours”, and that’s where technology has us headed. Let’s look at two examples, then see if we can build the beginning of a framework that can be used to evaluate new regulations.

Tesla cars are redefining personal transportation in three important ways, first by being all-electric and zero-emission, second by affording excellent crash protection and finally, most important to this discussion, self-driving capabilities. They achieve human-less operation by utilizing eight cameras which deliver 360 degree visibility with a range from 160 feet to over 800 feet. This technology delivers impressive accident avoidance, helping reduce the 6 million times per year this occurs in the U.S. These accidents result in 3 million injuries, two-thirds of them permanent, and over 32,000 deaths. Is the “constant surveillance” needed to save lives worth the privacy risks? Is it ethical to record everyone, without their permission, to make driving safe?

Ring doorbells improve home safety by alerting you when someone comes to your door, stream video to your smartphone to allow you to see who it is, and have a two-way conversation. They also can record that video, detering porch thieves and home invaders. But they also include a controversial audio recording feature, which can be disabled, that treads on the fine line between unauthorized wiretapping and having the expectation of privacy in a specific venue. For a single-family home on a half-acre of land, it would seem that anyone trespassing on your property should not have that expectation, while the reverse would be expected in a high-rise apartment building. While video recording clearly improves your safety, does exterior audio recording provide anything substantial?

The above two examples are just illustrative of the different decisions we can make in trading off privacy and safety. But we need a higher-level framework to guide our decisions and I offer the following four bullet points as a starting point to be discussed and debated.

  • Individuals should have strong privacy rights to protect their safety, but also realize that the country they live in contains a large number of bad people that do bad things. Over one million instances of violent crime and over nine million instances of property crime occur each year in the U.S., with an estimated economic impact varying from $690 billion to over $3 trillion dollars. 
  • Individuals should have very strong safety rights. Aside from the economic impact above or suffering a personal injury, being a victim of crime can bring on feelings of guilt, anger, anxiety, depression, fear, and in serious cases, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Safety is at the second level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, just above our physiological needs for air, water, food, sleep and health, demonstrating its importance.
  • The Government should have limited privacy rights. They are entrusted with an incredible amount of power and their workings should be as transparent and open to the public as possible. In cases where national security requires privacy, strong oversight is necessary. Only in the most extreme cases should the government be allowed to keep secrets. 
  • The Government should have limited rights to safety, meaning they can’t abuse their power to keep themselves, their political party or a pet project safe. The Government has to earn our vote, not mislead us, to their ideals. In the United States, people hold the ultimate power, as written in the Declaration of Independence, “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government”. The Government should never abuse their power to further their own selfish interests of survival.

Ultimately I believe the laws covering privacy and safety rights will hinge on the overall morality of our individuals, businesses and governments. A highly moral fabric will lead to a naturally safer society, which in turn will allow stronger rights to privacy. Sadly, the reverse is also true. Ultimately it’s our collective choice, but whatever the outcome, we need solutions that deliver effective compromises.


This article was first published in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Technology First magazine.

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