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Is Privacy Just a Show?

The IAPP’s Data Protection Intensive in London is an extremely useful event to get UK perspectives on the latest developments in privacy law and policy. Another perspective is on view a couple of miles west of the IAPP venue, at the Donmar Warehouse theatre, whose current production is PRIVACY, the play, by British playwright James Graham.

Privacy professionals attending the play will be excused for thinking they might have wandered into a theatrical version of an IAPP conference, as the play is as much seminar and public policy discussion as it is theatre. Indeed, such regular IAPP presenters as Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Stewart Baker are portrayed or quoted. A character representing Google’s Eric Schmidt explains the good uses of Big Data, such as correlating search-engine queries with flu outbreaks.

The play’s device is a series of psychiatric sessions involving a fictional writer, and the sessions are used to ask questions of the patient and the audience about how much information they expose when using digital devices.

An info card, akin to the safety instructions card onboard planes, is given to audience members as they enter. It is referenced at the start where, unlike the normal admonition in theatres to turn off mobile devices, the audience is told to keep their devices turned on. They are then guided, with the writer character, through ways in which their phones or online services use their data that presumably surprise some in the audience.

For example, the audience is instructed to type the words “is it wrong to …” into a search engine to see how autocomplete finishes the search based on the individual. Some audience members saw, “Is it wrong to cheat? Is it wrong to eat meat? Is it wrong to hate a certain race? Is it wrong to be gay? Is it wrong to like Hitler?” Some saw other queries and were put off by what they did or did not see.

Instructions are given on the best way to take a “selfie.” The audience is then encouraged to take one and to e-mail it to the theatre for display during the show. The display is used to show all of the information, in addition to personal images, that can be contained in a photo. Assurances are given that the photos are deleted at every performance.

The audience was also shown how in the U.S., a search for baseball bats on Amazon produces a recommendation to buy a baseball glove as an accompanying product, while in the UK, searching for a baseball bat prompts a recommendation to buy a balaclava—a ski mask favored by thugs who beat up people in public or hit them over the head with a baseball bat—or brass knuckles.

Audience members also were shown how their WiFi usage exposes a map of their whereabouts as well as times and durations of their visits.

There are verbatim accounts of interviews by “the writer” with journalists, politicians, intelligence officers and privacy advocates about the threat of ubiquitous surveillance. Of course, this includes the Edward Snowden revelations. The second half of the play tells the Snowden story through conversations between the fictional writer and various journalists from The Guardian.

With a technologist sitting on stage and clever use of graphics and videos as well as audience interaction, the evening keeps your attention. But despite a surprise ending—about which the audience is sworn to secrecy in an epilogue—the play is thin on plot and drama. As an exposition of some of the privacy issues many of us deal with on a daily basis, it is well-produced.

The real significance of PRIVACY as a hit West End play is its appeal and relevance to general audiences. Once an esoteric and technical issue for a focused few, privacy and PRIVACY have mainstream interest.

Written By

Christopher Wolf

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