Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Digital Voyeurism


This weekend I went to the newly opened exhibition “Exposed” at the Tate Modern. The collection of images explores the invasion of privacy through photography – at what point does artistic licence decay into dangerous voyeurism? Is the viewer of a photograph implicated in the act of taking it?

Most of the exhibition looks at the invasion of privacy in a historical context, but it prompted me to think more deeply about the present (and the very imminent) technological advances that could take voyeurism to a whole new level.

For example, online photo sharing means that most of us are already leaving publicly available records of our movements through time. It is easy to imagine a scenario in which an organisation trawls the web for photographs, downloading them to an archive and running them through face-recognition software. With the time, date and location stored with each photograph they could create a searchable database that could re-produce the historical location, through time, of just about anybody, based on the photos that they appear in. It would not surprise me if national intelligence services already have such a system. Nor would it surprise me if a privately-run commercial system is available soon.

On the subject of digital voyeurism, Google managed to open up a new frontier when they recorded masses of data being passed over unsecured wi-fi networks. I, like millions of others, already entrust Google with my personal data (emails and search histories and such). As such, I think it is probably a good thing they were behind the data collection and not a company that might be tempted to exploit what they found.

But overall the pace of technological advancement seems to be outstripping the pace at which we adjust our behaviour, our laws and our cultural norms. The Tate Modern’s exhibition focuses on the extreme, but in doing so it acts as a useful prompt for us to re-think our concept of privacy for a digitally-connected world.

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