Privacy and surveillance: a double- internship report

by Sonja Pijnenburg

Privacy is a hot topic nowadays, with new technologies ‘invading’ people’s homes which can often result in a decreased level of privacy. In my master’s Law and Technology, I learned that privacy is an important right in our society. While society is becoming more aware of the role of privacy, people might still bluntly say: privacy is not a big issue because I have nothing to hide. Therefore, people’s understanding of privacy interests me. Logically, the internship vacancy about organizing a citizens’ workshop on privacy and roboethics caught my eye.

When I received the notification that I not only was asked to help dr. Tjerk Timan with the MicroMole project, but also dr. Bryce Newell with his research into privacy crimes in the United States, I was pleasantly surprised. Two internship opportunities in one, what a chance! Admittedly, at first I was a bit unsure if such an internship could be combined with finalizing my thesis. Fortunately, it worked out perfectly, because both supervisors took it into account and let me decide my own work pace.

The assignment given by supervisor Timan concerned the Mircromole technology, which comprises a sensor system that is placed in the sewage to locate drug laboratories in order to assist law enforcement in fighting crimes involving synthetic drugs. Ethical questions we were, inter alia, interested in were: What notions of privacy do citizens have? And where do they draw the boundaries of their homes? My task was to set up a ‘mock’ workshop which would provide feedback so to optimize the outcomes of the eventual citizens’ workshop. Before I could start preparing the workshop, a literature research needed to be done to define different workshop methods. After having decided which method could be used, students and TILT employees were invited to join the mock workshop. Thereafter, my supervisor and I discussed the structure of the workshop. We decided to divide it into three activities. The first activity being a questionnaire, the second a mapping activity, and the third a discussion involving scenarios. After having discussed the structure, it was my job to set up the questionnaire and to come up with three different scenarios which involved the Micromole technology. On the 19th of August the mock workshop was held, in which 3 students and 1 TILT PhD-candidate participated. The participants provided us with helpful feedback which will be implemented in the citizens’ workshop. For example, according to the participants the questionnaire contained too many questions and a few questions are probably difficult for laymen. Even though, it was mainly a test workshop, it delivered some interesting results. Participants had differing opinions on the Micromole technology and its invasion of the home. Two of them answered that it is related to the physical boundaries of the home/property. “If the micromole is set in the public pipe it is not invading the home”. Two other participants stated that the micromole does invade the home, reasoning that “the micromole gets up in a manner that directly connects with the home”, or it “invades the private sphere by measuring waste, that logically has to leave the home”.

Because of the fact that I had two internship assignments, I could alternate preparing for the workshop with dr. Newell’s task. He asked me to do research into privacy crimes in the United States, with a focus on four states, namely; California, Florida, New York, and Texas. First I looked into separate state laws and the corresponding case law to look for specific privacy crimes, ranging from voyeurism to trespass. Later, I compared the laws of all four states, which led to some interesting conclusions. For example, in contrast to the other researched states, New York does not criminalize mere observation for voyeuristic purposes. The results of this assignment will be used in an upcoming paper wherein privacy crimes in multiple countries are being compared with a focus on the relation to spaces.