The Right To Privacy: Win One, Lose One?

Do American citizens possess a legal right to privacy? If they do, then is it guaranteed in the United States Constitution? And if it is, then is it an unalienable human right?

These questions are meaningful because contemporary advances in technology have caused civil advocates to raise concerns about illegal invasions of personal privacy. But these advocates often fail to clarify whether such alleged invasions are administratively illegal, constitutionally illegal, or unalienably illegal.

There are no generally accepted definitions that distinguish between these three levels of illegality. Nevertheless, the differences are conceptually significant. A law that requires the printing of home addresses on driver’s licenses, for instance, may represent a legal breach of personal privacy, but it is hardly a constitutional concern.

On the other hand, a law that prohibits same sex marriage is undoubtedly one that addresses the constitutional rights of American citizens. And a law that legalizes euthanasia or abortion directly addresses the “right to life” that was labeled an “unalienable right” in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence.

Concerns about privacy rights were raised anew last week, in light of a pair of announcements about: (a) hardware that is designed to protect physical security, and (b) software that is designed to share personal information. From the perspective of privacy advocates, the two announcements could have been scored in a “win one, lose one” manner.

Win One For Airline Passengers

The “win” for privacy advocates involved the full body security scanners that are manufactured by Rapiscan Systems. Two hundred and fifty machines had been installed at airport security areas throughout the United States; over half of these machines currently remain in operation.

The scanners are controversial because they use x-ray technology to “see” through clothing and transmit anatomically accurate images of nude human bodies to security agents. The agents, who are positioned in remote enclosed rooms in the airports, are trained to search for visual evidence of concealed weaponry.

Last week, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) announced that it will remove the scanners from operation because of concerns about violating the personal privacy of airline passengers. Nevertheless, the TSA vowed to continue utilizing alternative scanners that display less graphically vivid images.

The TSA did not cite a legal definition of privacy when it announced its decision. Although some liken the Rapiscan methodology to a virtual strip search, others support what has been characterized by the TSA as a safe and necessary strategy for promoting airline safety.

Lose One For Social Media Users

The “loss” for privacy advocates involved the announcement of a new search feature by Facebook. Its Graph Search function is designed to enable web-based searches on individual users by referring to their personal and social postings.

Facebook, of course, does possess the legal right to utilize all posted information in accordance with its terms and conditions of use. A more controversial issue, though, is whether the social media giant possesses the legal right to assume that all of its users actually read and understood those terms and conditions before opening accounts and posting personal and social content.

Facebook executives would undoubtedly argue that the discontinuation of Graph Search would not represent a victory for privacy advocates; instead, it would impose a loss on advocates of free communication in general and supporters of an open internet in particular. Likewise, Rapiscan executives undoubtedly perceive the discontinuation of its full body scanners as a loss for proponents of transportation security.

Coming Next: Location Tracking

The next great privacy controversy over technology applications may involve the continued development of location tracking systems. Ever since President Bill Clinton authorized the use of the satellite based Global Positioning System for commercial applications, companies from Google to foursquare have developed web based applications to exploit its capabilities.

To be sure, applications such as Mapquest driving directions and Garmin navigation systems have made travel experiences far more safe and efficient for millions of users. But the proverbial “dark side” of location tracking systems was exposed by the web site, a tongue-in-cheek rogue service for burglars that actually broadcast updates when social media users were traveling away from home.

In the Steven Spielberg film adaption of Philip K. Dick’s Minority Report, Tom Cruise walked through a shopping mall and was besieged by highly personalized advertisements that detected his personal identify and greeted him by name. The film did not clarify whether he possessed the right to “opt out” of such advertising, or whether he had previously “opted in” for it.

If the past week’s events regarding Rapiscan and Facebook are any indication of the future, such issues will likely be debated for quite some time to come. In the meantime, though, we’ll be able to feel a bit less prudish when we check in at the airport, while possibly feeling compelled to be a bit more cautious when we post our location status updates online.

Beauty and Simplicity: Look Who’s Talking!

Here’s a challenging quotation for you! Who once referred to a particularly well-designed object as “a great example of (a) focus of mine — beautiful products that are simple and intuitive to use”?

It might have been Steve Jobs of Apple, eh? After all, Mr. Jobs is globally renowned for assuming a leading role in designing beautiful, simple, and intuitive break-through products like the iPod, the iPhone, and the iPad. Apple’s iPhone, in particular, revolutionized the mobile phone industry by utilizing just a single button on its sleek face.

Or perhaps it might have been architect Philip Johnson, who created the world famous “Glass House” that still resides (and is open to the public) in southwestern Connecticut. Or perhaps it was architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who collaborated with Johnson to design the stark glass and steel Seagram Building in midtown Manhattan.

Even Leonardo da Vinci once (reportedly) said that “simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” But none of these men actually spoke the above quotation; in reality, it was Google co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Larry Page who expressed it last week. Considering the immense state of complexity of Google’s search algorithms and AdSense revenue program, it certainly appeared to represent a surprising change in corporate strategy.

The Threat of Complexity

Complexity itself, by its very presence, tends to hinder our abilities to diagnose and address challenges. The federal government, for instance, was reportedly so flummoxed by the sheer complexity of AIG’s financial derivatives that they decided to employ the very creators of these “financial weapons of mass destruction” to help unwind those transactions and rebalance the firm’s portfolio during the dreary post-crash period. Likewise, entire categories of consumer products — such as the advanced stereophonic equipment of yesteryear — have faded into irrelevance because their own customers struggled to understand their functions.

Google’s original home page, which originally sported little more than a search box under the company name, has grown significantly more complex over the years. It now features corporate information links in the lower left corner, a “Change background” link in the lower right corner, sign-in and settings functions in the upper right corner, and a series of ancillary service links in the upper left corner.

One of those ancillary service links actually states “more,” and by clicking on it, a visitor is confronted with a pull-down menu with twelve additional service links. And at the bottom of that menu, a thirteenth link then states “even more,” which in turns leads to over three dozen additional service links. Whew … now that is quite a complicated collection of links!

In addition, if you visit Google’s home page with a computer that possesses a “live” microphone, you can click on the tiny microphone icon within the search box and speak your search terms with your human voice. The voice translation service isn’t perfect, but it’s an interesting — albeit incredibly complex — technology to watch “in action.”

Beauty And Simplicity

None of these functions, however, necessarily strikes you as being representational of beauty, simplicity, or intuitiveness, eh? In reality, they all do leave much to be desired when assessed in those terms. Mr. Page, though, was actually referring to Google’s new “Plus” service when he referred to these traits in terms of his personal “focus.”

The Plus service is not yet available to the general public. Nevertheless, some industry analysts have praised it for providing a simple and intuitive alternative to Facebook users. Others, however, have lambasted it as an overly simplistic knock-off of Facebook, albeit with certain noteworthy enhancements.

Interestingly, Mr. Page’s comments were offered during an earnings release that highlighted Google’s recent financial success. Apparently, Google’s stylistic innovations are positively influencing their “bottom line” fiscal health as well.

Simplicity vs. Privacy

Many industry analysts are now focusing less on the simplicity of the Plus service than on its privacy innovations. When Google designed the service, it took aim at public concerns regarding Facebook’s policies by implementing a collection of default settings that implicitly establish a high level of privacy. Facebook itself, in contrast, has often been criticized for implementing default settings that ignore or avoid privacy considerations.

Despite its shortcomings, the Plus program appears to have created a collection of privacy settings that are — if not exactly beautiful — at least simple and intuitive to use. After previously unsuccessful forays into the social media business through services such as Orkut, Wave, and Buzz, Google finally appears to have introduced a viable social media service.

If it does succeed with this endeavor, Google will pull off a noteworthy “pivot” away from complexity and towards a standard of simplicity more commonly associated with people from da Vinci to Jobs. They apparently all believe that simplicity itself can serve as a “killer design application” that can ensure the popularity and success of numerous products from skyscrapers to cell phones.