Data Privacy & Ethics

Do You Use Your Smartphone to Steal Glances?

How smartphones erode the social norms that protect your privacy

Alexys Carlton
Jun 14 · 6 min read
A masked man surrounded by paparazzi
A masked man surrounded by paparazzi
Photo by Michal Matlon on Unsplash

A hotel janitorial employee recently made me uncomfortable. Each time I approached, he paused, mopping when I was within fifteen feet. Remaining silent behind his grin, he locked his eyes on me while I passed, only to return the polite “hello” I provided. His gaze lingered on me, I assume, even after I passed, as I never heard him resume mopping.

We stayed at this hotel for forty days awaiting the purchase of our home, providing ample opportunities to cross paths with this gentleman in the hallway or lobby. Each encounter mimicked the previous one.

I lack supporting evidence that he had any ill will or disrespect behind his unwelcome stare. And yet, I find myself fully justified in my discomfort because he broke a sacred Western social rule that allows us all to feel comfortable in public.

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This rule breaker created anxiety-filled hallways and made me not want to leave the room alone. While I wanted to trade the discomfort, I’m grateful that his actions were clear to me. Noticing his unwelcomed gaze warned me that something was awry.

But what if he secretly stole those glances?

Researchers warn that our smartphones and consumer facial recognition software threaten the social norms that protect our privacy and make us feel comfortable in public spaces.

How Smartphones Erode The Social Norms That Protect Your Privacy

While there is no real expectation of privacy in public,we all expect to remain inconspicuous, so long as we don’t bring attention to ourselves. You don’t implicitly agree to have your picture taken by a stranger or your conversation listened to when chatting with your spouse at dinner, for example.

You want to venture into the world anonymous among the crowd without fear of judgment or negative consequences for just being yourself.

You want to maintain some behavioral privacy even in public.

Civil inattention, a term coined by Sociologist Erving Gofman, describes the social norms we’ve created to maintain a comfortable social order in public spaces. This concept allows people to behave how they want to in public without fear of judgment from others, argue researchers Tamar Sharon and Bert‑Jaap Koops.

Short glances, looking at our phone, reading a book or newspaper, or putting in headphones are all examples we use to avoid invading other people’s public space.

Smartphones threaten these norms.

We cannot demonstrate civil inattention to others because our phones don’t have a red light or another way to show to others that we’re taking pictures of them. Smartphones are capable of secretly snapping pictures of people or stealing glances.

We knew in the past if someone was looking at us or possibly listening to our conversations. Anyone could secretly be snapping our picture or video now, a reality that steals our ability to behave naturally in public spaces.

Facial recognition apps are further threatening our social norms because they allow strangers to identify us. Would you act natural if you knew anyone around you could snap your picture and within minutes know who you are and anything else publicly available about you on the Internet?

Would you still feel comfortable reading that raunchy romance novel while waiting at the airport? Feel comfortable waiting in line at the pharmacy? Feel comfortable walking into a therapist’s office?

“The freedom to act autonomously in public (within boundaries of social and legal acceptability) — is what is most at stake in the use of consumer-based FR [facial recognition] in publicly accessible spaces,” argue Sharon and Koops.

Can Civil Inattention Survive?

The paranoia that paparazzi are following us transforms how we behave in public.

Smartphones and other photography devices are here to stay.

When attention is required or even asked for, we should proudly hold our phones up and preserve the moment. Capturing our shared experiences providing crucial functions, such as bringing criminals to justice, as demonstrated in the case of George Floyd’s murder.

We must, however, maintain social order by respecting others and demonstrating civil inattention even in the digital age. But how?

We need to stop celebrating photos shared online that violate our social norms.

“People of Walmart” is a great example where we’ve chosen to celebrate images that break civil inattention. People take and submit photos to a website of people they saw in Walmart with non-conforming clothing or appearances or doing things others may find entertaining. Sure, sometimes the person in the picture is doing something that warrants attention, like bringing a pet lizard into the store. But the images are of people as their everyday self shopping at Walmart.

We often choose fake Internet points over respecting people’s privacy.

Each time we upvote or like the pictures and videos that violate civil inattention encourages more people to erode the social norms that make us feel comfortable in public. If we collectively choose to acknowledge the photo or video violates that person’s privacy and not celebrate it, we’ll discourage such privacy violations.

People shouldn’t be allowed to use facial recognition software.

The thought that anyone could take my picture and immediately know my name creeps me the eff out. It’s one thing if the government or a business does it for national security or to provide a better service, but a random person on the street? No, thank you.

Facial recognition software has its place, and it’s not in the hands of consumers.

The safety and privacy risks outweigh any benefit of giving us consumers such power. We need to advocate for laws banning the personal use of facial recognition software and not allow its sale to consumers before we realize such risks.

Companies need to consider civil inattention when developing new technology and add features to existing ones.

Civil inattention needs to be considered and translated into technical features to help us preserve our social norms.

We need features highlighting we’re breaking the unspoken social code.

Why don’t smartphones have a light warning us someone is taking our picture or recording audio? If a camera is an extension of our eyes and ears, it needs to warn others we are watching and listening.

A light may be enough to warn others we’re taking a photo, but it doesn’t inform we plan to use that information. Sharon and Koops suggest using a flashing light to warn others that a camera with facial recognition software is in use. Universal colors or light patterns across devices that enable people to spot the risks and call people out on their disrespect will help maintain the social order.

We may also need features that allow us to show civil inattention or indifference to others. Sharon and Koops suggest a “civil inattention slider” on your phone that closes when you’re not using the camera.

I’d buy a phone case that has a sliding piece for over my camera when I’m not using it and a quote that reads, “I respect your privacy.”

As consumers, we need to ask smartphone companies for privacy features that help us preserve social norms and use them when offered.

You’re responsible for your smartphone gaze.

Creeps are going to be creeps. We can’t prevent all people from creating digital content and using said content to disrespect and harm others, just as we can’t control all people from staring at us.

But do you want to be the creep?

Next time you take out your smartphone to snap a picture of someone in public, stop and think. Is that person doing something that warrants attention, like picking a fight or busking next to the subway entrance? Or are they simply being themselves in a public space, and you’re violating their privacy because you find them attractive or weird or whatever?

You are responsible for your smartphone gaze. Your phone extends you. Just as you avert your eyes in respect of others, avert your camera too.

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