December 28, 2008

Privacy rights are puzzling.

What are privacy rights? The right to keep your thoughts and personal life to yourself? An article in The Economist called "How the brain buys" sparked my interest.

Researchers, aided by new technology, the article explained, are making more and more discoveries about neurology as it relates to shopping. For example, one study found that if coffee was categorized, (mild, dark roast, nutty, or even A, B, and C) customers "were more satisfied with their choice."

Technology could go even farther. Small machines could be installed on top of a shopper's head to measure brain patterns.

However, the article continues...
"The notion of shoppers wearing brain scanning hats would be ridiculous if it were not so alarming. Privacy groups are already concerned about the rise of electronic surveillance that records what people do, let alone what they are thinking."
But I wonder: what exactly are privacy rights? Suppose we say that our privacy rights only protect our public actions, not our private actions or our thoughts.

Without even reading our minds, which I'm think most would consider to be unacceptable, there are countless things machines or people could monitor and track:
  • time of day we shop
  • time spent at each shelf/rack
  • words we say
  • preferred brands
What would you feel comfortable allowing? I'm not just asking this theoretically: the rise of technology makes this more relevant than ever. Is it ethically justifiable to track buying patterns?

I'm now asking for answers and discussion, mainly on two questions.

1) What really is ours? That is, what is a reasonable distinction between what we have the right to keep unknown and what is open to the public?

2) Where do we get the idea that we even have rights?