phases of anonymity

There is a huge backlash against software companies’ collection and use of personal data – and rightfully so. What Google, Facebook, et. al have done to seize and abuse the data of our lives is shameful. However, it is important to realize that the concept of tracking itself is not a moral problem; the use of the data is the problem. This is particularly problematic as architectural spaces become more and more infused with digital interactions of various sorts.

For example, when you use a restroom and the faucet automatically turns on the tap water, you are being tracked. A passive IR senor is monitoring for a presence. Not YOUR presence – ANY presence. The data of the faucet utilization is not being logged and aggregated into other data sets. No one (except perhaps for those wearing tin foil hats) could care that the faucet is tracking presence.

On the other end of the spectrum, there are clear scenarios where we expect everyone to be identified and tracked. Who would want to remain anonymous in a healthcare setting? If you’re sick and receiving treatment – you damn well expect your doctors and nurses to keep precise track of who you are and what you need. Oops! Sorry Mr. X, we accidentally removed that organ! Or do you want to fly anywhere with a group of random, anonymous travelers???

So there are clearly cases where anonymous tracking is perfectly acceptable, and there are clearly cases where we expect everyone to be “checked in”, verified and precisely monitored. So it is best to consider the “phases of anonymity” that will occur as one progresses through physical spaces. There is a range of anonymity to personalization that can be established:

Architects already design progression and thresholds for buildings that delineate public (anonymous) space and private (identified space). But with digital systems, the granularity of the spectrum of anonymous/identified is much finer.

Many scenarios in physical places can be enhanced anonymously, meaning that occupant consent is not required, nor is any personalized information stored. Yet this anonymous information can have a profound effect on the digital optimization of the occupants in a physical space, offering tremendous opportunities to enhance occupant experiences without tramping all over their privacy. Even if localities ban AI-driven facial recognition, there is a huge amount of potential in purely anonymous sensing systems.