If 20 people are in a coffee shop, then there are at least 21 cameras: One embedded in each person’s phone and, usually, one tucked high in the corner. What you say may be overheard and tweeted; you might even appear in the background of another patron’s selfie or Skype session. But that doesn’t stop even the most private people from entering coffee shops. They accept the risk inherent in entering a public place.
This notion—of a “reasonable” expectation of privacy—guides researchers hoping to observe subjects in public. But the very idea of what’s reasonable is a complicated one. Faculty at three universities—Duke, Stanford, and the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs—are facing backlash after creating databases built using surveillance footage of students as they walked through cafes and on college campuses. You might reasonably expect being overheard in a coffee shop, but that’s different from suddenly becoming a research subject, part of a data set that can live forever.
Ethics boards approved all three research projects, which used student data to refine machine-learning algorithms. The Duke University researcher Carlo Tomasi declined an interview with The Atlantic, but said in a statement to the Duke Chronicle that he “genuinely thought” he was following Institutional Review Board guidelines. For their research, he and his colleagues placed posters at all entrances to public areas, telling people they were being recorded, and providing contact information should they want their data erased. No one reached out, Tomasi told the Chronicle.