Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Question on Privacy

Via Christopher Parsons.

Chris has a draft paper analyzing the privacy expectations of using Twitter. While a seemingly absurd concept (everything on Twitter is public, right?), Chris has effectively written an argument pointing out that it isn't a completely off the wall idea. Its worth the read. (And he's someone officially worth watching.)

One point made about our normative expectations of privacy was this:
Anonymity – where individuals enter large groups without providing their identity to engage in self‐reflection in a space free of surveillance and identification.

Is this legally recognized in any facet of Canadian Law? If so, if someone were to "out" an anonymous blogger (a regular occurrence actually) would the formerly anonymous blogger have a reasonable expectation of legal redress for an invasion of privacy? While there are cases where anonymity was not a guaranteed form of protection in cases of defamation and libel, lets assume that the anonymous blogger was the victim of malicious online stalking to reveal their identity.

Aspiring and current legal minds, I open the floor to you.


Sir Francis said...

I'm hardly an "aspiring [or] current legal mind", but I do have a stake in this question (obviously), and I would think that the method used in the outing would be key to determining its legality.

Clearly, using clues provided by the target blogger is very different from dishonestly gaining access to his or her private data. It would be the difference between watching an act of exhibitionism and trespassing in order to do some Peeping Tomming.

Ultimately, though, I can't see how one could prosecute an on-line outing without proof that the outer used illegal means to obtain the compromising data. Even then, it would be the use of the data, and not the outing itself, at issue.

Catelli said...

A week ago I would have agreed with you, but now I'm not so sure of that.

There would be a difference between the clues willingly offered (marital status, employment, residency, etc.), and someone using other clues (blogging pattern, IP geographic and info, etc. etc.)

However, I still think the central question is; is it an invasion of privacy to spoil ones anonymous right to pursue self-reflection? Am I (or you) violated in a legal sense?

Its readily apparent we both participate online under a pseudonym for some reason of personal security, if only to manage our own virtual personal space. But the very act of communicating imparts some risk in that every word we write, and every action we take online might reveal clues about our real-world or "meat world (what a horrid term)" identity.

A few reasons that I am anonymous is to protect my employer and my own employment, to prevent harrasment by deranged individuals and to extend that protection to my family and loved ones.

If my true identity were revealed online in an innocuous manner (it just becomes a known fact) but no actual harm befalls me, do I have any recourse? Probably not.

But if that revealing caused me to lose my job or one of my sons to be bullied, etc. then would that be enough of a cost for me to seek redress? I really don't know.

On a related front. A few years ago I had sent out an e-mail to all employees warning of the implications of using a particular consumer product in the office. Without my (or company) permission, that e-mail was copied and pasted to an online forum where it remains to this day.

If they had just copied the text, I think I would have been OK with it. But they copied and pasted my signature, which included my name, corporate phone, e-mail address, title and company I work for.

When I found that, I felt (and still feel) somewhat violated. What I meant for internal corporate discussion was posted to the whole world where any Tom, Dick or Harry could see it and disparage it. My sense of privacy and professionalism was violated.

Sir Francis said... it an invasion of privacy to spoil ones anonymous right to pursue self-reflection? Am I (or you) violated in a legal sense?

I just don't think that, really, there is an inherent or legally defined common-law "right" to pursue anonymous self-reflection. Perhaps there should be, but that's another issue.

A shocking amount of "violation" is quite legal. It's perfectly legal to publish excerpts from diaries and letters without the owner's consent. One cannot steal the things, of course: the objects are personal property, but the transcribed contents are not.

That's why it's so important to follow the rule of not saying anything online, even anonymously, that you would not be prepared to defend if forced to do so.

As for my own anonymity, it's mostly to spare my mother a heart attack: this is a woman for whom the utterance of a "damn" at the dinner table requires an immediate trip to the confessional.

Catelli said...

Interesting. Thanks!

As to being in a confessional...

What the hell? You're fucking with me right? If that were true I'd have to live in the damned thing.