Privacy in the modern connected world?

For the last few week signs have been appearing all round campus that include a ‘no photography’ symbol.

166/366 - Unrealistic?

In the modern connected world, with the ability to instantly grab and share photographs with all your friends, I think the instant reaction from most of us was ‘is this realistic?’. But I think this opens an interesting debate about the future of our right to privacy when just stepping out in public has the potential to undermined an individual’s privacy.

As you would expect, almost all our students have camera phones. The youngest generation of our students, those who came straight from college, spend an inordinate amount of time on Facebook sharing photos of their life at Uni. To them, the idea of banning photography on campus is ridiculous.

At the moment, most of our students are away for the summer, so few are aware of the new rules and it will be interesting to see what they make of them in September.

But even for most staff, the idea of banning photography seems stupid. I take photos on campus all the time. Many for work reasons, but also photos at gigs and for pleasure. Staff regularly encourage students to share photos. In fact we have integrations with Flickr to encourage students to share photos.

Part of my responsibility is the development and maintenance of our video portal. As part of the development I had to familiarise myself with the data protection rules of the Uni and the special ‘duty of care’ it has towards people who study with us. I suspect these symbols are a reaction to some of these issues these requirements raise.

Although students are adults, University’s have a special ‘duty of care’ towards their ‘customers’ that I suspect most companies do not have. It’s our responsibility to provide a safe environment to allow our students to study. Uni’s provide a wide range of support services to look after the ‘wellbeing’ of each student to give them best chance of achieving their potential. We also have regulatory and local rules about how we use our student’s data. As University’s are seen as an ‘official’ source of data for government and employers and we have to be careful how this data can be used.

As part of the video rollout. I worked with staff responsible for data protection issues to develop rules about when and how staff can use video. A student’s digital image is considered a piece of data that has to be protected. It may seem excessive, but University’s support all aspects of society so it’s not uncommon for students who need their right to study in peace, to be protected. It’s not unusual for us to have students who have escaped difficult family lives and are trying to better themselves by getting a degree. The last thing these students need is to have their image appear on the web. I’ve also been told that there have been Uni’s who have had to support students on ‘witness protection programmes’ who again need to feel like their right to privacy while they study, is protected. So the rules for staff are that if you are filming or photographing students you have to ensure students have the option to opt out of the session. But for students, no such rules exist and yet they’re ‘leaking’ information about other students on a daily basis.

Personally, I’ve uploaded many photos taken at work to Flickr. But I never add photos with an easily identifiable face. But with hundreds of photos taken on campus every week by students who just snap wherever they are, with whoever might be in the background, and then publish them on the web. You have to wonder how long it will be before some serious privacy issue does occur. You only have to look at Facebook’s face tagging to see how easy it could be in a few years time to provide ‘facial’ search engines on all these public pictures. Maybe the University feels it needs to extend it’s protection of our most vulnerable students beyond staff but to all students on campus and although University campuses are ‘public’ in many ways, they are private property, so we can ask students not to use cameras. I suppose, if we don’t do anything and a problem occurs, can the University realistically say it’s done it’s best to ensure it protected the privacy of our students?

I guess for me, the horse has long since bolted. I think by stepping out in public, you immediately loose the right to privacy. So is it realistic to expect ‘privacy’ in public or semi-public places?

2 Comments

  1. I know this is a serious issue but one has to see the irony in your photo above. No photography allowed, but CCTV cameras are just fine!

    So it’s fine to have Big Brother (likely some underpaid overworked security guard) watching our every move, able to zoom in on our activities, possibly listening in too, with likely very little in the way of supervision. But having a friend take a photo of us with our permission is wrong?

    This is just typical of of our ridiculously over thought and over legislated privacy policy in the UK right now. Red tape and CCTV (for safety’s sake, honest guv) are two of the scourges of our age in my opinion.

    These are kids away at Uni for the first time. Let them enjoy life and recording their memories for this years of drudgery that will come after they leave.

  2. Paul says:

    We all noted that irony.

    I’m hoping these images were added for privacy reasons, because at least it’s been done with the right intentions. But I have a suspicion that they’ve been added because some insurance company has told us to.

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