Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Privacy Paradox and the Boston Marathon

Having grown up in the Boston area, I have been following with great interest the story about the runner at the Boston Marathon who collapsed and was picked up an carried by other runners towards the finish line. It was a heartwarming story, particularly given the tragic events at last year's marathon. However I should not have been surprised, given the state of today's media, that there has been a backlash over the past 24 hours with at least one website disputing how far the runner was carried and whether he was carried across the finish line or whether he finished himself.

As a geoprivacy geek, what caught my attention with the most recent reporting was that the initial reporter specifically states that he will not disclose the fallen runner's name because the runner had asked to have his privacy protected. However the website disputing the initial accounts went on to identify the runner, based in part I assume on the number on his running bib that was captured on video and cameras at the finish line.  (There is a website that allows you to search runners by bib number.)

This incident highlights to me the challenges that we will face in the not too distant future as lawmakers, regulators and judges try to protect privacy in public places. I often refer to this as the "Privacy Paradox". Our location in public spaces, and accompanying information about what we are doing, who we are with, what we are looking at, etc. are being collected in more ways and by more people than ever before. However, we increasingly are expecting greater privacy. (Twenty years ago I don't think many runners (or spectators for that matter) worried about their privacy at the Boston Marathon - I know my family didn't when we used to run watch).

Presumably, the runner signed an acknowledgement (or waiver) that his bib number would be public and tied to his name.  However, I wonder if this document addressed the release of his name in highly public (and perhaps embarrassing) dispute such as is now taking place. Similarly, it is unclear as to why Deadspin felt the need to disclose the runner's identity; however should such disclosure be considered a violation of the runner's privacy?  Even if he had specifically asked not to have his name identified?

Privacy in public places. It may not prove to be a paradox, but it is going to be a long and difficult journey.

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