Jay Stanley joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the US as a senior policy analyst five weeks before 9/11. “We saw that a lot of policies that had been proposed and rejected before 9/11 suddenly sprang back into the public debate and were proposed again,” he says. “[People] were willing to give their government any power that they asked for. Most of the terrible policies that followed weren’t making us any safer.” The controversial Patriot Act – made effective in October 2001 – was one example, removing judicial oversight from much of the government’s surveillance powers.
The straight-talking Stanley, a graduate of Williams College and recipient of an M.A. in American History from the University of Virginia, firmly believes that anonymity helps make a city tick. “People move from villages, where their every move is scrutinized by nosy neighbors, to the city, where they have a certain degree of freedom and anonymity,” Stanley says. Privacy is a core part of modernity, he says, and what keeps a city flowing. “And so if technology makes us lose those things, then I think that a core part of what people experience in the city [will be] eroded.”
There’s a fine line between technology aiding a city and limiting our privacy as dwellers of it. “Maps allow us to find nearby services and certainly [make] big improvements in people’s lives. The problem is that these things have a potentially ugly downside. People have no idea how much information is collected and stored and how many parties it’s shared with,” he says. “But it is possible for us to enjoy the advantages of these innovations without giving up our privacy.”
Stanley talks a lot about the “arc of privacy” – the lag between when people actually lose their privacy and when they become aware that they have lost it. Drawing attention to this is something he does at length on the ACLU’s ‘Free Future’ blog, which he founded in 2012. The aim? “To highlight the ways in which new technology and science may be affecting our privacy and other civil liberties, and the ways that we can work to ensure it increases individual freedom and autonomy rather than the power of institutions over us,” he explains.
Stanley’s solution is simple: any data not needed for the provision of a service should not be retained; any that is should only be kept for as long as necessary. Consumers should know exactly where they stand and should consent to sharing their information affirmatively and meaningfully – “not on page 38 of a 42-page click-through agreement,” says Stanley.
Video footage, including that obtained through body-worn police cameras, for instance, should be kept privately for a limited amount of time and then disposed of, says the ACLU. Yet some of that footage is imperative for the public to see, in the case of use of force, a felony arrest or a complaint against a police officer. But this is regrettably when it is less likely to be made public.
Stanley, however, regards the ethos of the ACLU as collaborative instead of oppositional. “There are many areas in which security and privacy interests align. A lot of measures which people need to take in order to protect the security of information will also protect the privacy of information,” he says. “Privacy and security are not the same thing, but they are close cousins.”