In the coming years, the phrase “expectation of privacy” may become more familiar as individual and groups start taking legal action against companies for tracking or identifying them both online and off. As I reported in these pages last week, the cult of data collection is penetrating physical space at retail in many unexpected ways. Should a shopper expect anonymity and privacy in the store aisles? In the digital realm of social sharing, what will become the indicators that someone is waiving any reasonable expectation of privacy?
This is an interesting question that has no clear answer, because we haven’t even begun asking the question of citizens. An fascinating experiment by the BMW Guggenheim Lab is trying to explore this topic by gamifying it. The Public/Private game engages users to declare their expectations of privacy in specific settings and activities and then compares those answers to others in that vicinity.
The game creates your demo profile and then asks you to rank the places you expect privacy in your area. Within your urban area it has you highlight blocks for ten locations/activities: workspace, home, cultural space, school/university, transportation, shopping, restaurant/café, park/open space, religious space and street/square.Highlighting each of these blocks in the Web app activates a continuum where you place it in a range of privacy expectations, from “a lot” to “never.”
Then you are asked to share the level of satisfaction you feel in your own city: satisfied, “just OK” or “could be better.” The app then quantifies your level of privacy seeking and compare with others in the area. Only one other person in my area, Wilmington, had gone through the process, but among the ten spaces listed he/she and I sought privacy 60% of the time. Then the game compared the results with the entire county in which Wilmington lives and found that people were seeking privacy much less often when the fence was set wider. Comparing Wilmington to New York City, it appeared also that urbanites there had a lower expectation of some privacy in public places, although they had a higher expectation in the workplace than did my fellow Wilmington-ite.
The researchers -- Mumbai-based BMW Guggenheim Lab, in cooperation with Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action & Research (PUKAR) and the Design Cell at the Kamla Raheja Vidnayanidhi Institute for Architecture and Environmental Studies -- say they are trying to better understand how “our understanding of privacy changes at a local and global level.” Ultimately they want to see how concerns about privacy by urban dwellers might be addressed by design.
The concept of privacy itself is shaped by culture. In a blog post at the BMW Guggenheim Lab, PUKAR Executive Director Anita Patil-Deshmukh is quoted saying that in Mumbai and India generally the concept of privacy is in some sense unfamiliar, at least insofar as most Westerners would recognize it. Finding space for oneself in this setting was not a firm concept, and she says that they started researching the idea wondering if the concept even existed. It turns out that many people associated private places with public places that were away from home. If women from a household wanted to talk “in private” with a friend, they often did so at a grocery market. The place itself may not have been private so much as its remove from certain people.
It is well to keep in mind some of the complexities of privacy as itself a malleable concept shaped not just by cultural differences but also circumstance, and even the nature of the content being kept “private.”