Privacy as Contextual Integrity (Part 3): Evaluating Existing Norms of Information Flow

[This is Part 3 of my discussion of the theory of “Privacy as Contextual Integrity”]

To determine the potential impact of new vehcile technologies on the contextual integrity of personal information in the context of highway travel, the first step is to understand the existing norms of appropriateness and flow within this particular context.

Existing Norms of Appropriateness in Highway Travel

Most everywhere we drive, we drive in the public world; we are subject to public observation. The disclosure of certain personal information has become normalized in our frequent acts of driving along public roads. With the exception of tinted windows, the occupants of vehicles are observable. While not fully identifiable, occupants can be seen and generally described as male or female, young or old, wearing a suit or a t-shirt, and so on. The norms of appropriateness, then, include visually-observable and generally-identifiable information about a car’s occupants, but not their names, ages or occupations.

The identity of the car itself is also governed by norms of appropriateness. Our society celebrates uniqueness and choice in consumer products, and our vehicles reflect these values. As a result, cars of different makes, models, styles, and colors fill the streets. This allows a general level of identifiably of a vehicle: I can observe a green Toyota SUV leave a parking lot and watch it as it navigates through downtown traffic. This simple method of surveillance would not be possible if all our vehicles looked exactly alike, and norms in our culture make it acceptable that others can visually pick out and observe my vehicle. From such simple visual surveillance, others (including law enforcement) can observe what direction I am traveling, approximate my speed, gauge whether or not I am driving recklessly, and so on.

Norms of appropriateness govern an even more efficient method of identifying vehicles: the public display of license plates. Every vehicle on the highway has a unique and visible identifier that, when queried against the proper database, reveals the registered owner of that vehicle. The norms in our society dictate that it is required to display such identifiable information, and that it is appropriate for others to be able to observe, and perhaps even record, this information. The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), another unique identifier, is also openly displayed, but requires a much closer inspection of the vehicle: it is usually stamped on a small piece of metal near the windshield, and not observable from a distance.

Existing Norms of Distribution in Highway Travel

It is important to note that the norms of appropriateness described above generally deal with visually observable information. The occupants of a vehicle and its license plate number have been deemed appropriate information to divulge, but mainly in visual contexts, and generally in person and in close proximity. Quite simply, someone has to be nearby, watching your vehicle in order to obtain this identifiable information. Considered in relation to norms of flow or distribution, the flow of such identifiable information is generally confined to the likelihood that a person happens to be located in a particular spot in order to actually observe another vehicle. Further, that person would be unable to observe all vehicles and would have to selectively choose which to examine more closely to determine its occupants, type or license number. It also is unlikely that any one observer would be able to maintain complete surveillance of a particular vehicle as it travels through chaotic rush hour traffic or travels hundreds of miles across country. Such conditions represent natural barriers to mass surveillance of highway traffic, barriers that constitute part of the existing norms of flow or distribution.

Other elements of the norms of flow in the context of highway travel include legal barriers to the free flow of personal information. While norms of appropriateness allow open access to a vehicles license plate number or VIN, the prevailing norms of flow restrict the ability to obtain more detailed information based on these unique identifiers. Legal barriers, such as the Drivers’ Privacy Protection Act of 1993 reflect the restrictive norms of flow on sharing some personal information to third parties. For example, a marketing company is prohibited from obtaining a list of all owners of minivans, or a private investigator cannot obtain the name of the owner of a car with a particular license plate number. Other norms of flow might actually compel the sharing of personal information, such as when a police officer has just cause to query a license place number through a database to determine if a car has been stolen. Other norms of flow ensure, however, that even when we are compelled to provide information, it is used only for the intended purpose and not shared with others.

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