Like many people I have a shelf-full of books that I’ve been meaning to get around to reading for some time. Often these are worthy non-fiction that are quietly re-shelved when the new Parchette or David Webber comes out. For me that list has long included The Transparent Society by David Brin. Despite a picture of me reading it being used in promotion materials by the Open Rights Group a few years ago I’ve still never got around to reading it. It comes up because I suspect the ideas in it, and the refutation of it by Clay Shirky whom I respect immensely, would inform this blog post greatly.

I was motivated to write by an article by Anil Dash called What is Public? In it he discussed how the definitions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ are sometimes surprising (it may be legal to video someone in their own home through their window), how they are quite consciously framed by the media and social media companies for monetary reasons but, in the end, are social constructs we are all part of defining.

I recommend you read the article in full. However, what it made me think of is what part should the government have in defining this? In a previous post I wrote (in a half-hearted way) about the debate around the need for a written UK Constitution. If a Constitutional Convention were to go ahead part of the debate and therefore the content of ratified document would surely include some definitions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ despite the extremely rapid, and some say generational, ways the boundaries between those terms are changing.

I’m assuming that we’re not going to have a written Constitution any time soon. So, that lead me to think whether the government should have a public stance on this anyway. I recently read all of the public submission to the Labour Party Digital Review (the output of which is due soon). Many of those referred to the advantages of “big data” on one side and fully justifiable worries about privacy on the other. At the moment decisions around those are made on an ad hoc basis. Would it be good for the government to publish a set of high level principles, not necessarily related just to data, in which they clearly lay out the definitions of ‘public’ and ‘private’ that the civil service should adhere to while they are in power?

Like the whole Constitution idea I’m not sure if this is a good idea but I think we (both those of us in the civil service and citizens in general) should be having this discussion as at the moment we’re frequently working at cross-purposes to each other (one has to look no further than extreme reactions, in both ways, to Google Glass).

I’ll leave you with this. The FBI has just announced that it’s mass digital face-recognition system is now in operation. This means it’s now possible to flag up the appearance of anyone of their database (or anyone else’s database that also has access to the system) in any location that has a CCTV camera that can provide the required input.

This may be a great thing or a terrible one. Like so much of the introduction of new technology into what the state does it can be a double-edged sword. However, what I do know is that we should be discussing whether showing our faces in public spaces is an inherently ‘public’ or ‘private’ action.