Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, made some waves in 2010 when he suggested that we are living in a world where privacy is no longer a social norm. This made a lot of people nervous, but for those in the know, this was nothing new.
In our increasingly connected lives, our phones are keeping track of who our friends are, our internet search histories show what we’re interested in, our streaming services know our taste in music and movies, our supermarket loyalty cards know what we eat and our social media profiles know where we go.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to maintain privacy in this day and age.
That’s why we’re opening a new exhibition at the Science Museum all about how our data is being collected and used, and how it’s making huge changes in the way we live our lives.
Our Lives in Data explores how our online behaviour, our travel, and even our DNA is being recorded by interested organisations.
Today in the UK it’s thought that about 27% of retail stores are using some form of recognition camera to monitor who’s walking through their doors. It might be terrifying to think that our faces are being logged without our knowledge, but we should also consider the purpose of this kind of data collection.
In this case, shops are looking to see what types of people are coming in to browse; they care about demographics, not about individuals. How effective was the marketing campaign geared towards teenagers? Do we need to advertise more clothing to men? Do people come in as a family, or alone?
These questions don’t particularly create an invasion of privacy as they could potentially be answered by an observant person with a clipboard at the door instead of with a camera. So why is it that when a person writes down what we’re up to it is called market research, but when a camera (or a phone or a search engine) does the same, it’s a violation of privacy?
One of the major barriers we’ve come across while developing the Our Lives in Data exhibition is how inaccessible this technology is. When a camera sees us, it doesn’t announce itself or state its intentions like a person might. At the very least a person with a clipboard can be spoken to. But a camera is unnervingly impersonal and hidden in that increasingly magical realm we call ‘digital technology’. The issue may not be that we’re being logged, rather how it’s being done.
It’s this lack of transparency that we find again and again as being the major barrier to understanding and accepting this level of observation, and it is something we are exploring in our exhibition.
We’re all guilty of skipping the terms and conditions. Perhaps it’s time to see a new way to understand what’s happening to our data. Wouldn’t it be great in the midst of this new technology boom to see this system become more human?
Our Lives in Data opens at the Science Museum on 15 July.
Sheldon Paquin is the Content Developer for Our Lives in Data at the Science Museum.