I spy with my digital eye

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It is, perhaps, amusing to discover that a city with more than three million closed circuit television cameras pointing in every direction where people gather and gambol can still get riled up over antiquated notions of privacy.

Of course, that’s London, England, for you – always wanting to have its tea and drink it, too. Frankly, advertising executive Kaveh Memari doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. So what if his company has installed digital technology in trash cans that “reads” people’s smartphone signals? As he exuberantly told The Associate Press the other day, “We will cookie the street.”

No you won’t declares the City of London Corp., which has ordered Mr. Memari to cut it out. A press release from the municipal authority is unequivocal: “The collection of data from phones and devices carried by people passing sophisticated waste bins in Square Mile streets should stop immediately. . .A spokesman said, ‘We have already asked the firm concerned to stop this data collection immediately and we have also taken the issue to the Information Commissioner’s Office. Irrespective of what’s technically possible, anything that happens like this on the streets needs to be done carefully, with the backing of an informed public.’”

The statement continued: “The bombproof waste and recycling bins, which also carry TV screens with public information, were installed as a way of re-introducing waste bins to City streets. ‘This latest development was precipitate and clearly needs much more thought – in the meantime data collection, even if it is anonymised, needs to stop,’ added the spokesman.”

What a party-pooper. And he’s not the only one. The New York Times reported last month that shoppers were none to happy to find that fashion retailer Nordstrom was spying on them with “new technology that allowed it to track customers’ movements by following the Wi-Fi signals from their smartphones. ‘We did hear some complaints,’ said Tara Darrow, a spokeswoman for the store. Nordstrom ended the experiment in May, she said, in part because of the comments.”

In fact, reported The Times, “Nordstrom’s experiment is part of a movement by retailers to gather data about in-store shoppers’ behaviour and moods, using video surveillance and signals from their cellphones and apps to learn information as varied as their sex, how many minutes they spend in the candy aisle and how long they look at merchandise before buying it.

“All sorts of retailers – including national chains, like Family Dollar, Cabela’s and Mothercare, a British company, and specialty stores like Benetton and Warby Parker – are testing these technologies and using them to decide on matters like changing store layouts and offering customized coupons.”

Now, back to London where the civil liberties group, Big Brother Watch, is so incensed its spokesman Nick Pickles told The Associated Press that “questions need to be asked about how such a blatant attack on people’s privacy was able to occur.”

On the other hand, just try and bar Internet access to an iconic work of English literature, and the subject of privacy assumes an altogether different complexion.

“In the latest development of over-zealous internet filtering, the British Library has blocked access to Shakespeare’s Hamlet because of its ‘violent content’,” declares a recent Big Brother Watch blog post. “We have repeatedly warned that there is a fundamental issue with filtering legal content based on a subjective moral view, often made by a third party and not the person operating the network. Does the British Library really think that the content of Hamlet is so violent to justify access being blocked to one of the most famous plays of all time?”

This is the paradox of our digital times. People want and expect all the world’s information to flow seamlessly into their desktop computers and mobile devices, just as long as none of that information pertains to them.

We may nurture the illusion of privacy by turning off our cell phones. Until, of course, we see the closed circuit television camera point straight at our furrowed brow.

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