When Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis published their landmark Harvard Law Review article "The Right to Privacy" in 1890, they talked about privacy as "the right to be let alone."
At that time, they were responding to the arrival of the camera in society. They could not have imagined the challenges to privacy that exist in the wired (and soon-to-be-wireless) world that we live in today. For example, how are our rights affected when cameras or computer chips are implanted into our bodies? Who are we, actually? Where do "we" end, and the machines begin?
Living in the aftermath of Sept. 11, and in an age of galloping identity theft, we are increasingly being asked to identify ourselves wherever we go. In order to use the Internet, participate in e-commerce, or simply operate basic computing software, we need to authenticate ourselves, leaving trails of our interactions at every stop along the way.
Gone are the Internet's early days of lax security and blind trust. Now, nearly every theft or crime seems to spark demands for more surveillance.
More and more devices are capable of communicating, but what are they saying about us?
Distributed intelligence is everywhere, from the black boxes that record how we drive, to medical devices that log our tests for audit purposes. Increasingly, our movements are recorded in everything that we do, everything that we buy, everywhere that we go.
All of this has profound implications for individual and group behaviour. It affects the extent to which people will choose to engage in electronic commerce and participate in the New Economy. It also affects the way that we choose to express ourselves, how we interact with one another, how we perceive and make moral decisions, and our willingness and ability to participate in the democratic process.
A century from now, will people consider privacy and other liberties enjoyed by their grandparents to be a curiosity, a museum exhibit? Have we lost sight of the right to be left alone? Or will we choose to design a world safe from those who want to wield the power of prying electronic devices?
We have yet to find satisfactory answers to these questions. Our current philosophical, social and political understandings of the impact and importance of anonymity and authentication are poorly developed. Who hasn't heard that simplistic mantra, "If you've done nothing wrong you have nothing to hide?" We are complex social beings in a highly competitive global economy, interacting with strangers and friends alike in a very fearful and quickly shrinking world. We had better figure out when, how, why, and on what terms we want to be transparent to other people around the globe.
Understanding and solving such problems demands different kinds of expertise from various cultural contexts. Sharing insights will demand dialogue across disciplines, an activity that remains challenging in light of traditional approaches to scholarship. With peer review as the primary metric of success, there has been an historic incentive for scholars in a given field to speak about their work, primarily amongst themselves and their students. This approach makes it extremely difficult to formulate policy on matters like privacy that require interdisciplinary focus.
That appears to be changing. The Social Science and Humanities Research Council recently awarded a group of researchers nearly $3-million over four years, to investigate the implications of anonymity and identity in our networked world. Topped up with another $1-million from corporate and public-sector sponsors, a group of us has been given the support necessary to assemble a multidisciplinary team of privacy and technology experts, from lawyers and ethicists to cryptographers and cognitive scientists, from Canada and around the world. We'll consider the prospects for personal privacy in a world where ubiquitous computing is spreading faster than our ability to comprehend it.
Although the focus is explicitly on collaboration across disciplines, our project -- headquartered at the University of Ottawa's law faculty -- involves three broad research themes.
The first, undertaken primarily by scholars in the humanities and social sciences, will examine the social and philosophical concepts of identity, anonymity, and authentication.
The second theme is law and public policy, addressing the constitutional and legal aspects of anonymity. An important component of this research involves the policy choices surrounding technologies that create anonymity and authentication. We'll also develop public resources and instruments aimed at assisting privacy advocates, public-interest groups and members of the community.
The third theme will engage researchers in the fields of electrical engineering, information technology and computer science.
Research will include technical work on various types of networks that maintain anonymity or authenticate identity in ways that enhance privacy, including on-line voting, electronic health-care records and wireless wearable computing. Research results will be made publicly available on our planned website (anonequity.org), and in a book to be published at the end of the project.
We are interested in how anonymity and authentication will work in a just society. The questions go beyond scholarship: We want to find better ways to achieve our policy goals in a society that is reaching out for technology. We hope to engage the public and private sector, the individual as a consumer, and the individual as citizen. We aim to influence approaches to law reform and broader social policy, and to contribute to the way that we communicate with one another, the way we do business together, and on our moral discourse and ethical interaction. Because the future abounds with question marks.
Ian R. Kerr is Canada Research Chair in ethics, law and technology at the Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa.