James Fallows offers excellent advice:
if you have a chance to identify people in crowd shots, don’t.
The specifics here have to do with the Stanley Cup riots. Everyone’s sympathies are with the Vancouver Police here, rather than the rioters, and so are mine. High-fiving Vancouver Police officers downtown after a Canucks win was one of the best times of the Stanley Cup run for me. I want to help them and punish the rioters, and I am sure others do as well. So it would be tempting to help “tag” such mass photos and help identify rioters, but actually the privacy considerations should make you reconsider. The paper referenced in the Fallows post provides some cautionary tales of private companies aggregating all “tagged” photographs into one-query searches available to whomever and of police filming protestors and offering reward for tags. It isn’t really a leap at all to imagine a situation where a protest is photographed and its participants tagged and then harmed as a result. Even the possibility of this happening is a huge damper on free expression of dissent.
The tagging situation also gets back to something I was reading Julian Sanchez say recently that was an excellent point: technology doesn’t actually need to provide any new capabilities, it can just change norms. It’s not like someone couldn’t take a lot of pictures of crowds before a riot in the 60’s. And it’s not like someone couldn’t go to the police, identify their “friends” in these pictures and point out who they were and where they live and whatever. But nobody would do that. Now, it’s a different story. But while the march of technology is inexorable, the change of norms is not. We are in control of what is socially acceptable. I’m hoping that for some time yet, tagging crowds is unacceptable to me and my friends. We may be ultimately doomed to lose our privacy entirely, but let’s hold on to what we can of it while we can.
Another issue where technology has outpaced norms is gene mapping. Recently a couple of my friends signed up for 23andme, a service where you send a DNA sample to Sergey Brin’s wife and in return get information about your DNA. One friend was kind of surprised at how negatively I viewed him doing this and telling people about it. My view is that to participate in 23andme is basically to hasten the arrival a GATTACA-esque dystopia. Basically, once you know you have Huntington’s Chorea and you have a chance to pass it on or not pass it on to your children, not doing genetic engineering seems kind of cruel. And with stories like this coming out more and more frequently, it will not be long until not having yourself genetically tested, and not using genetic engineering to assure your child a better life will be seen as eccentric and unusual, and later immoral. I basically do not see how something other than this can happen. Thus, I believe, the longer we delay the time when genetic testing is societally accepted as commonplace, the better. Please don’t do 23andMe
To symbolize not going for 23, here is “When Yer Twenty-Two” by the Flaming Lips!
I often feel very pessimistic about the kind of world the technologies of the future will lead us into. I think a good thought experiment antidote here is to imagine my reactions to inventions past. I found myself being unhappy at the thought of the invention of ski-lifts, glasses, microwaves, sewing machines, recorded music, grocery stores and packaged dinners. But back in the present, the existence of these things don’t really bother me and don’t lead me to think that I am living in some dystopia. And for some of these, they actually make the world a much better place. Let’s end on this optimistic note.