In America, Privacy Takes a Back Seat

By Daniel Nazar

As a nation, America lacks strong privacy protections. While we live in a country proud of its constitutionally guaranteed rights, it wasn’t clear until the 2003 Lawrence decision that privacy was protected enough to prevent states from criminalizing some forms of consensual sex in the privacy of your own home. Even after Lawrence, some conservatives still argue that a constitutional privacy protection “doesn’t exist” at all, a view shared by some sitting Supreme Court justices.

While this topic has been of critical importance in the gay rights debate, a lack of strong privacy protections for individuals can potentially cause far more widespread intrusion into people’s lives as technology enables new ways to track people’s movements and activities. Some courts are handling this in the criminal context by protecting records of your movement, deeming seizure of your cell phone records without a warrant to be a Fourth Amendment violation… but what happens when the information is provided voluntarily, or to people other than the government?

Wired Magazine recently highlighted a new iPhone app called “DriveMeCrazy”, which lets people anonymously complain about the way you drive. All a complainer needs to do is enter your license plate number and their complaint, and the information is anonymously forwarded to both the DMV and your insurance company automatically. Worse, there’s nothing you can do to contest or remove complaints. To even find out if complaints were made against you at all, you have to get the app and register yourself, a process which logs the date, time, and location of your registration.

The most disturbing part is that each complaint logs the date, time, and location of each alleged “violation”. People can also leave compliments, which include the location of where the “good” behavior occurred, too. Currently they state that only “bad” reports are forwarded to the DMV, but the app still ultimately creates a database on where you were and when, whether naughty or nice.

The app’s creator says he sees no privacy problems and wants to “end” automotive anonymity. He’s also eager to start collecting profits on this by selling access to this database as it grows larger. With no privacy checks in place, this app could put your entire driving history on sale. In fact, it’s already enabling this now; from the website’s own FAQ, one perk of registering is being able to monitor your own driving record or even that of others (such as your spouse or kids) by using the “Follow” feature. And there are no apparent limits on who this data could ultimately be sold to. If private insurance companies could buy access to this info, then what’s to stop sales to the state police or the FBI (or, for that matter, an employer curious where you go when you’re not at work)?

Wired’s write-up on the app also notes that there are no limits to what kind of reports people can make, but their examples (such as finding a bumper sticker “offensive”) are still benign compared to this app’s true potential. Given the number of protests against adult stores still occurring nationwide, for example, this would enable an easy and frightening form of protest. Even a single pastor encouraging his congregation to “complain” about people visiting adult stores by their license plates could trigger a flood of reports from a congregation of thousands. Since your spouse or parents can easily “Follow” you to see complaints against you, this app would suddenly start advertising to the world what until now has been a fairly private business transaction, without any way for you to contest or remove the complaint.

Given the enormous potential for privacy violations, you might want to opt out of this service entirely, but unfortunately the app won’t let you. From the site’s FAQ: “Anybody, registered or not, can be flagged by others as either a bad or a good driver.” If you register, you can delete your account, but it doesn’t delete your history or prevent people from continuing to report you: “However, that doesn’t mean you can’t get flagged anymore by fellow motorists (whether you’re a bad or good driver).” The FAQ’s privacy section seems purely concerned about protecting the privacy and anonymity of complainers, who are promised that their identity will never be revealed.

Technology is rapidly shrinking the world, and as the DriveMeCrazy app demonstrates, there are those eager to track you remotely and sell the tracking data for a profit. Without stronger privacy protections for individuals, both against the government and corporations, digital tracking services like this are capable of quickly eradicating what privacy individual citizens still have.

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The Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review (CR-CL) is the nation’s leading progressive law journal. Founded in 1966 as an instrument to advance personal freedoms and human dignities, CR-CL seeks to catalyze progressive thought and dialogue through publishing innovative legal scholarship and from various perspectives and in diverse fields of study.

Latest comments
  • Hi Daniel

    Thank you for reviewing the application and sharing your thoughts. I think you raise some excellent questions and concerns, and I will briefly try to respond to you and your readers below.

    For insurance companies (or the DMV) to use our data, we would need to be legally approved, which is obviously not the case. As such, DriveMeCrazy data is not used to set premiums today. We of course do hope that it helps point out the potentially dangerous drivers on the road. Similar programs have been effective in the past. For example, trucks with How’s My Driving decals experience 30% less accidents, Washington State boasts the lowest carpool violation rate thanks to HERO, and more than half of existing neighborhood watch programs report a 10-20% reduction in crime (Nat’l Crime Prevention Council). DriveMeCrazy is nothing new; we merely leverage the smartphone as a new platform. Our goal is to provide people with constructive feedback (many bad drivers are not aware of the impact they have on the majority of the good drivers). Part of this effort involves creating an open system.

    I realize that numbers above are neither very sensational, nor make for a catchy title which Wired (Autopia) was angling for. However, they are real, and if DriveMeCrazy succeeds in making our roads a little safer, then we are better off then where we are today. For what it is worth, we have numerous checks and balances in place to detect malicious or frivolous use, and remove suspicious flags accordingly. A next version of the app will provide the flagger with instant feedback as to whether a flag is rejected or accepted.

    Finally, I agree with you that everybody should be able to check their driving record. Unlike the credit scoring companies or even the DMVs, we do this for free and instantaneous. To that extent, DriveMeCrazy will soon be on Android and boast a more elaborate web interface. I must, however, correct you that there is no need to register to check your record.

    I hope this provided some clarification, but feel free to ping me if I can elaborate. Philip- CEO DriveMeCrazy

    • Philip,

      Please know that I regard your goal as well-intentioned and understand it. I have no problems with what you are trying to accomplish, only how you are trying to accomplish it.

      I also apologize for the error in my write-up, and it’s good to know you don’t need to register to check your record. Really, that raises a new concern; it suggests that anyone can view my full record just by putting in my license plate number, and that goes back to the very privacy concerns I’ve raised already.

      My main problem is that you, and you alone, are the final decider of what is done with this information. This is not a system that protects the privacy of individuals at all; it allows others to use your app to intrude on that privacy. These privacy concerns don’t seem of importance to you, which is highly concerning to me, especially given the system you’ve constructed. You fully control the “checks and balances” that remove suspicious activity, you have provided no way for drivers to object to the complaints against them, and you fully guarantee the privacy of any complainer.

      You have set up a system that allows people to anonymously harm others, not only without repercussion, but without any way for them to undo the damage. This system actually encourages people to exaggerate claims, since there’s no repercussions on them for making frivolous or incorrect complaints, and doing so allows them to “punish” bad drivers even if what the driver really did wasn’t that bad. People lie and exaggerate, and they do it much more often when they know their identity is being cloaked; anyone who’s ever read an anonymous message board should know this by now. But your app has the potential to actually harm people’s reputations and possibly cost them not only their drivers’ license or their insurance rates, but also some of their privacy by revealing where and when these supposed transgressions took place. If they’re smart enough to do it realistically then it’ll stick as a “valid” complaint that the affected driver can’t contest, can’t remove, and can’t escape.

      Again, I do not object to your goals. Reducing accidents and providing feedback to drivers are both noble goals. What concerns me are that there are few protections in the law against the potential privacy intrusions this app can produce, and the system set up suggests you’re fully willing to just sacrifice the privacy of everyone in America to reach this goal. And even if you agree with me and it changes your mind, I still have a problem with the fact that it’s your private choice, since that means someone else could come along and do the same thing and we’d have to start all over again. We talk of protecting our rights, but our privacy is very poorly protected under the law, and the more technology enables violating it without such protections, the harder it becomes to protect what we have left.

      If your app succeeds, will we be better off as drivers? Yes. But will we be worse off as citizens with any privacy left once we step outside our front door? It certainly appears that way to me.

  • Where here is your conception of “public”? What I do in public, in public view, is by its definition public. Are you suggesting that some actions I take in public I should be able to mask?

    Then what implications does that have for journalism (sorry, newspaper, but I don’t want you to report what I did in public because I’m going to claim an expectation of privacy) as well as for watchdogging the actions of government (witness recent cases in Maryland trying to stop citizens from recording the actions of public officials — the police).

    Your creeping definition of privacy can rob the public space of its public nature. Beware the precedent.

    In Germany, a government and media tizzy over Google Street View led to 244,000 Germans demanding their Verpixelungsrecht — the right to have a building pixelated — though the pictures were taken of public views in public. If Google can be told to redact such public views, then so can journalists and citizens (most of whom now carry cameras with them every day; many of whom provide thousands of photos per day to Germany’s largest newspaper).

    If I take an action in public — driving badly — then should I not suffer and be aware of the consequences? Is that not a governor on my behavior? Isn’t that a key factor in maintaining civility?

    Too many are being too quick to protect what they define as privacy — a creeping definition, to be sure — but too few are protecting the public.

    • Ah, that gets to the heart of the problem, something created by the lack of privacy protections here: What IS privacy? Without any real privacy protections, or any attempt to create them, there’s not even a coherent definition of what privacy *is*, and that’s harmful in itself. Some courts, at least, recognize where you go and what you do as a “private” action, as I mentioned in my essay, requiring a warrant for access to your cell phone records to show where you went with your phone on you. But it sounds like you don’t regard where you go or what you do to be “private” at all, and sadly there are a lot of people out there who’d agree with you.

      But I will say this: I don’t think what I’m describing is creeping at all. In fact, it sounds like you’re allowing technology to creep in the other direction, and in the absence of privacy protections, that’s really what we have. Technology is eroding our privacy; that is, our “the quality or state of being apart from … observation” and the “freedom from unwanted intrusion”, according to Merriam-Webster. As observation increases, privacy decreases, at least without anything to protect and preserve it in place.

      20 years ago, nearly everyone paid for everything in cash. Those transactions were “private”; nobody was recording who was making them, you didn’t give your name when you bought something, and nobody was collecting that information. Today, most people use debit and credit cards, and it’s easy to collect data on everything that a person has purchased and where. Having and using that information is a potential loss of privacy.

      20 years ago, turnpikes were paid for with coins. You put coins in the booth and drove, and they took pictures of license plates to catch offenders, but didn’t keep databases of who was going where. Today, many turnpikes use “toll tags” which have a unique ID linked to your name and vehicle number, and since each transaction is credited to your account at a specific date, time, and toll booth, it amounts to the turnpike authority (a government branch) tracking your movement in a way they did not used to.

      20 years ago, it wasn’t feasible to identify everyone who stopped at an adult video store just by their license plate and advertise to the world that they’d visited there. This app makes it possible, by people regularly flagging drivers who stop at such stores and making up driving offenses for them to have committed.

      What is privacy? Why are you treating it as something we can only have inside a locked and window-shuttered home, and that whenever any of us steps outside we forfeit our rights to it entirely? Doesn’t that make privacy an elitist thing, only available to those who own their own houses? Protecting the public also means protecting the public’s right to privacy from excessive intrusion, whether the intruder is the government or a for-profit corporation.

      Also, your post ignores the other part of the problem: Any balance of privacy must be against the potential gains. What I see here is a potentially enormous privacy invasion (by enabling tracking of people without their permission and publishing the collected data) that outweighs the benefits.

      Should people who “drive badly” suffer consequences for it? Yes, but that’s what the police are for, and they have checks and balances on abuses of their power. This app has none of that; it shields the people doing the reporting, which is the most ironic part. They fully shield the privacy of complainers, guaranteeing their identity will never be revealed, while giving those being targeted no option whatsoever to opt out of this program, or even to protest wrongful complaints. They’re simply forced to leave it to the app creator’s discretion as to what gets filtered out and what doesn’t.

      Is encouraging better driving a noble goal? Yes. Is sacrificing privacy to the hands of profit-seeking private individuals justified by that goal? No, certainly not.

      There are other ways to go about this, and the fact that the app creator maintains final control and has no checks on his ability to balance things this way (full privacy for the complainers, none for for the targeted) means that this is a public discussion that needs to be had.

  • This isn’t really about privacy, it’s about technology enabling people to report on each other and distribute that reporting to a world-wide audience with ease. Wikileaks is similar to this – a sole actor can decide that information needs to be shared with the world and, in a flash, it is.

    Do we as humans like this development? No, but in order to maintain liberty, we must find a way to embrace it.

    • “This isn’t really about privacy, it’s about technology enabling people to report on each other and distribute that reporting to a world-wide audience with ease.”

      pri·va·cy, noun; 1. a. the quality or state of being apart from company or observation. b. freedom from unauthorized intrusion; one’s right to privacy.

      As observing and reporting increases with technology, privacy decreases. These are certainly unauthorized intrusions; when we get in a car, do we intend for people to track our every movement and publish where we go for the world to see? Do we forfeit the right to move about without being tracked just by continuing to move about after new technology has enabled it?

      I’m not objecting to the technology itself, I’m objecting to lack of clear privacy protections that ensure it doesn’t go too far. Technology is progressing with no clear or defined privacy protections at all, and given how rapidly technology in this area is progressing, it means we’re sacrificing privacy at a rapid pace with no means of protecting it.

      Maintaining liberty and embracing technology require having ways to balance the two, and protect that one does not go too far into the other. Without real privacy protections, and real discussion about what those privacy protections should cover, there’s no balance at all, and technology can just override everything until there’s no liberty left.

      Do you have a webcam in your house? Should someone remotely have the right to access it, turn it on, and observe what you do while alone in your house without your approval or consent? Such technology exists, and it enables people to report on each other and distribute that reporting to a world-wide audience with ease. Would you be okay with that?

  • Daniel, I think I would be careful about extending your point to a webcam in your house. The distinction being made is whether a right to privacy includes protection from the use of technology to observe what would otherwise be observable by a human being. To follow your line of examples of things that have changed with advanced technology, 20 years ago, if police wanted to find out what a suspect was doing, they had to personally stake-out and follow the person. Now electronic trackers can easily do the work for them. This greatly lowers the barrier to this type of surveillance. Courts have found electronic methods of following a person to require more judicial review than personally observing public behavior because technology allows the police to track people without expending valuable personnel resources. We all understand that driving on public streets or visiting stores and leaving our car in the parking lot is in the public view. We also expect that no one is really paying attention. As the use of cameras and other technology like DriveMeCrazy makes it possible to be watched and recorded and tracked everywhere we go in the public sphere, we need to put in place limits on what is normal personal observation and what is an unreasonable intrusion, understanding that just because an action is visible does not make monitoring that activity acceptable.

    • My main point about the webcam-in-home was to say that if you take “technology enabling reporting on each other isn’t privacy” to its extreme, it would enable the destruction of privacy even within the home.

      There is a distinction between what happens inside your house and what happens outside, but I don’t believe it should be as large as it is. Do we forfeit all rights to privacy just because we go outside? As I mentioned, courts require warrants for the government to track your movement using your cell phone. They do this despite the fact that they could’ve just followed you around and gotten the same information without a warrant. Just because something was technologically possible before, though, doesn’t mean it should be fully allowed once technology enables it. Sure, police could follow you around and note your movements, but they were only doing that when they had enough reason to justify the extreme costs of doing so. The costs of police work were protecting people’s privacy otherwise, and now that it’s gotten so cheap, tracking suddenly becomes possible despite the fact that it was, previously, a very rare occurrence only applied to those who generated suspicion beforehand. It is only within the last few years that full-time tracking of every citizen, and cheap retroactive investigation into their movement by pulling phone location records, became possible. Those are new invasions of privacy, despite the fact that the same information could’ve been obtained in the past.

      I think we’re trying to make the same ultimate point; we currently have no real limits on what is unreasonable intrusion, and people seem to be declaring existing intrusions “reasonable” just because they’ve happened and haven’t been stopped. Without having any such limits, where do the intrusions stop? Do they even stop at the front door to the home, if technology enables the government or private individuals inside today?

      And what happens when technology starts to enable ordinary citizens to look inside a person’s house, even though it hasn’t been possible before? The Kyllo v. United States case (533 U.S. 27, 2001) condemned police use of thermal imagers to look inside a suspect’s home, but Scalia’s reasoning was that thermal imaging technology wasn’t readily used by the public and that was why it was an unreasonable invasion of privacy by the police. Thermal imaging has been possible for decades, but because it’s cost-prohibitive to most, we take it for granted that it won’t happen (much like tracking our movements in our cars). If the public could suddenly acquire high-end thermal imagers cheaply, could they look into your house legally? It appears so. Would that then allow the police to do so too?

      And if so, then what’s the difference between a thermal imaging camera looking inside your house from outside, and an Internet-connected webcam letting you look inside someone’s house from outside?

      This is why I bring up activities inside the home. We may regard them as more sacrosanct than activities outside the home, today, but even that isn’t properly protected. By allowing these erosions of privacy as justified by technology just making cheap what was possible, the same arguments can ultimately be used to see into our houses and every private space we have. Privacy ultimately ceases to exist if we do not draw a line somewhere, collectively, as a nation desiring to protect our privacy as individuals.

  • We have a healthy and thoughtful debate going here which I appreciate from all the participants. I hope, Daniel, that it provided you with a more balanced view.

    My final comments would be slightly “practical” in nature (the theory referred to above only gets us that far):

    1. Opposite to what is repeatedly suggested earlier, DriveMeCrazy does not control if its data will be used by insurance companies. Insurance is (rightfully) regulated and in this country, we each get to vote for our Insurance Commissioner. So it’s the people who are the decision-makers, not the company.

    2. Daniel – you suggest that the DriveMeCrazy pros don’t weigh up against the cons. I have credible numbers to put a value on the pros. Whilst I hear your concerns loud and clear, where is the data to make a claim that DriveMeCrazy is net negative? Actually, I enjoy being able to pay with plastic and drive through the tolls using a transponder. Most other people do, too.

    3. Your concern finds its origin in suggesting that people are inherently bad and evil, wishing to falsely flag others. Surely every society has a few rotten apples, but I like to believe that people are generally kind and well-intended. They will use DriveMeCrazy when it has merit; flagging someone at a porn shop sounds terribly boring and short-lived to me. There are many other similar (anonymous) systems out there that actually function rather well (e.g. eBay’s buyer & seller ratings).

    4. Last but not least. Driving is a public act, not private (see also Jeff’s comment). You cannot possibly dispute that (and it also explains why we have license plates with big letters and numbers). I think we all agree that you shouldn’t elbow somebody on the street; shielding behind a privacy concern to justify cutting somebody off (= elbowing when walking) is weak. Building an argument around privacy is similar to saying: “Look, as long as you don’t get into an accident, it’s OK to drive drunk”. If you drive responsibly and respectfully, then DriveMeCrazy could possibly yield good things for you (e.g. an insurance premium that truly speaks to your performance on the road, not your educational or marital status).

    • Philip: I am enjoying the chance to debate reasonably with you on these issues.

      Regarding a value on the cons: How do you put a price on privacy, or any other civil right? I enjoy the convenience of toll tags and credit cards myself, and they do make my life easier. However, I believe that it’s possible to have these things without forfeiting my rights to not have what I do with them made available to everyone. This is what I am getting at; we need a debate on what amount of privacy should be protected, and we need agreement on it, enforceable through the law, just like we have for our other rights. It’s possible to mandate greater privacy in these areas (for example, mandating that toll tag data is never used for anything other than billing purposes, and if necessary, provided to the police with a warrant; also, mandating that credit card companies do not share your purchasing history with any third parties; and so on) without actually diminishing their convenience. Do you see what I am saying? There does not have to be a trade-off between one and the other, I should be able to have both. This should not be an either-or thing.

      In that sense, what you suggest is essentially putting a price tag on privacy. People must buy their freedom from insurance companies looking into anonymous and uncontestable reports about them, and given that you insist that this will make roads safer and therefore reduce accidents and insurance costs, you must admit that any insurance company that would make such a promise would charge a premium for it. You don’t control if insurance companies use that data, but you actively offer it to them, and are generating it for that purpose. And you’re also saving date, time, and location info that could be used for purposes more nefarious than simply knowing where a supposed offense took place.

      What if I don’t want people to know I’m driving through Ohio (for example) at all? If I try to be a good driver, nobody should notice me, my movement should still be “private”, but you still enable tracking of me. What if someone still takes something I do as “bad”, even if objectively it wasn’t? What if someone flags me as a “good” driver there? It still tells people that I drove through Ohio, if there are no safeguards to prevent you from sharing that information with others.

      The same goes for someone who stops at an adult video store and gets reported in the parking lot, or for someone who is the victim of false reports in false and embarrassing locations that they can’t prove were false. This is what is at the core of my discomfort, that you and you alone control what is and isn’t available right now. And it’s not something that people can shop around; they can’t agree to buy into a reporting service that respects their privacy more. You’re going to take these reports and offer them to insurance companies whether I want to opt in or out, and that is not fair to me as an individual.

      Are people inherently bad and evil? No. But I have witnessed what people are like without safeguards, and this is exactly why you offer this app in the first place. You offer it to place checks on bad drivers, drivers who aren’t subject to any penalties for their bad driving today. So obviously you believe that people need those kind of checks on their behavior. What checks are there on bad reporters? Your own argument for bad drivers needing less anonymity is the same one for why bad reporters on your site need less anonymity, because without it they’ll just continue to be bad and feel no real-life repercussions for their actions. They’re just as anonymous as the bad drivers you’re seeking to regulate, and you get sole control over what methods are used to ensure their fairness. You get to define that, which means you get to define the extent to which you intrude on others.

      And systems like eBay user feedback have incentives for providing positive feedback. If you give someone positive feedback, they’ll likely do it back. That way, the best sellers can get enough positive feedback to overcome any errantly bad reports that they might get. But your system doesn’t seem to provide those same incentives. What do I get for giving someone good feedback? I don’t know they’ll give it back to me. It’s not worth the effort. There’s no “good” equivalent to vengeance, and really, vengeance is what will drive a lot of these bad reports, the desire to punish people who drive “badly”. So unlike eBay, there’s no real social incentive to providing good feedback every time something good happens, meaning people are likely to leave far more bad complaints than good ones.

      There are things that are “public” but have private components to them. If you drive from your house to a friend’s house, the only person that really knows that is you and your friend, and anyone who took the time and resources to follow you. The courts recognize that tracking your movement is an invasion of privacy, which is why (as I mentioned) they render it a Fourth Amendment violation to pull your phone records and look at where you’ve been in the past without a warrant. This is despite the fact that the cops could’ve tracked you at the time if they spent the money on it.

      As a society, there are behaviors that have both public and private components. If a driver acts badly on the freeway, he should expect the possibility of being punished for it; police are authorized to pull you over. But what he doesn’t expect is for anyone with a phone to log his date and time and location into a database, without him having any control over how public that information is or who looks at it.

      And people are irrational, all of us. Just a couple days ago I had an incident coming out of my own parking lot. It’s hard to see past the line of cars parked in front of my complex, so I just wait for the light to turn red and cars to stop coming through the intersection (which I can see), and then go. There was this SUV who made a turn at the intersection just as I started to go, but I couldn’t see him until I was starting the turn. It should’ve been fine because he was still down at the end of the block anyway. He actually accelerated at me, though, as if it would deter me from pulling out any further, but I was already halfway through the turn so I just finished turning. I had so much space between me and him that I cleared him despite his acceleration. He honked at me angrily as he flew by.

      He was angry at me. Had I pulled out in front of him? Technically, I suppose. But I was more than a half-block down from him and even with him accelerating I had plenty of space to clear him. If he’d just slowed down and been reasonable, it would’ve further ensured our mutual safety. If he had this app, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if he reported me afterward for something like “dangerously pulling out in front of oncoming traffic”. If he was angry enough to accelerate at me and honk, he was probably angry enough to vent by reporting me. And it could sound like a legitimate report to anyone reading it, despite me knowing the circumstances and that I’d done nothing that was really wrong or dangerous.

      What recourse do I have? I could have reported him with your app, too, I suppose. But that wouldn’t have gotten rid of his report against me, which would’ve contained a date, time, and location revealing where I was when it happened. And thus my privacy (where I’m going in my car and when, which is not normally something people have access to) is violated, in the name of punishing me for a traffic offense I didn’t even really commit. And I have no way of challenging it or seeking its removal from your database if it shows up, and no guarantees in the law that you won’t use it in ways that would hurt me.

      I agree that your app has the potential to do good things, and I’m not disputing that. Again, you have a noble cause and good ideas. But you could easily do this in a way that’s less intrusive. For instance, here’s some suggestions on how to at least make it less intrusive while still being ultimately effective:

      1) As far as users go, make it so you can only access your own driving history. You can still use the honor system there, but it’ll deter people from looking into what others have been doing. Your goal isn’t specifically to advertise people’s entire history to the world, it’s to deter bad driving, right? If a person can look and see that they’re getting reported for things, and that might get reported to the DMV or their insurance company, that should still deter them enough. Putting anonymous complaints out there for the world to see and giving reported drivers no recourse is just an invitation to abuse, and one that’s unnecessary.

      2) Promise only to pass on information for the worst 25% of drivers, or something along those lines. This automatically reduces the likelihood that people will have illegitimate reports sent in on them, since the only people getting their information forwarded on are those who’ve gotten so many complaints that there must be something legitimate to it. (If your app is successful and deters bad driving, as time goes on it’ll take less and less bad activity to end up in the worst 25%, increasing the deterrent effect.)

      3) Promise not to pass on time or location information to any third party. You could identify incidents simply by date and your own internal log number. This limits the amount of intrusive information you’re submitting to third parties like insurance companies.

      There, see? Those three things would go a long way to protect the privacy concerns of nearly every relatively safe driver, while still allowing you to ultimately accomplish your goals (giving feedback to drivers on their bad behavior, trying to deter such behavior by threatening to report those who’ve done enough that you’re sure the reporting value outweighs the intrusion into their lives).

      What’s sad to me, though, is that nothing in the law makes you or anyone else respect people’s privacy even this much, and you have a large amount of freedom on how much you can intrude into the lives of others with this. My problem isn’t that you’ve made this app at all, it’s that you’ve gone too far with what it does, and that as a nation we lack enough privacy guarantees to compel you to find things that respect both privacy and your current goals, instead of treating it like an either-or choice.

  • I know this discussion took place a few months ago already, but I just stumbled upon it when doing some Googling, and there’s something I would like to add. Particularly, I would like to respond to a comment made by Jeff Jarvis on December 20th. That is, “Your creeping definition of privacy can rob the public space of its public nature.”

    This is simply NOT true, and I think that this belief is what’s responsible for many Americans being way too passive on this issue, which is, in turn, is what’s responsible for our eroding privacy rights. Jeff, if you’re reading this, let me ask you something if I may. You would agree, I’m sure, that a public library is a public place, right (hence the term “public” library)? Let’s say, hypothetically, cameras were banned in a public library, and people therefore had an “expectation of privacy” there, but everything else remained the same. Would it thereby become a “private library”? No. As long as it’s open to the public as opposed to being “members-only” (the library of a trade association is a good example), it’s still a public library. It should also be noted that saying that the general public has access to the library is NOT the same as saying that the general public has access to everything that goes on in the library — that everything within its walls is for public consumption. Do you think because a public library is a public place, other people should also have access to your library records — what books you’ve checked out? You checked them out within the walls of the PUBLIC library, so according to your logic, the answer should be “yes.” But in reality, the term “public library” simply means exactly what it says. That the public can enter and use the place itself — the library. You need to differentiate between the place and the people who happen to be in that place. Otherwise, it’s like you are saying “I have the right to use this library without a membership, you have the right to use this library without a membership, therefore I have the right to know everything you do in this library.” That’s ridiculous.

    The point is, and I kind of apologize for the use of all-caps here but that’s how emphatically I want to make this point:

    LACK OF PRIVACY IS NOT WHAT MAKES A PUBLIC PLACE “PUBLIC.” That is, it is NOT the demarcation between a public and private place. You can impose privacy in a public place, and it will still be a public place. Therefore, I see no reason why people should have to give up privacy in a public place unless what that person does actually AFFECTS society at large. The focus, I think, should therefore be on the information in question, not the location. Which is exactly how it’s handled in several countries in Western, Europe, for example.

    PS. Do you remember the movie The Truman Show? Yes, okay, his life was being filmed in both private AND public places. If the footage started the second he walked outside his door, however, I guess that would have made it okay with you? In fact, did you sit there during the parts of the movie in which he’s in public and think to yourself “ummm, so what — he’s in public. Why SHOULDN’T everyone else in the world know everything he’s doing?” Lastly, let’s say we were ALL like Jim Carrey’s character in that movie as long as we were in public? I guess that that would be your ultimate free society? Everyone sitting around watching each other watching each other? Really?