How mobile personal safety technologies are restructuring privacy in public

Presented at TiLTing Perspectives: Regulating a connected world
Tilburg University, The Netherlands
17 May 2017


Recently, scholars have argued that smartphones make privacy very hard work, or even an outright impossibility (e.g. Smith 2016). However, others have argued that they represent an opportunity to retreat within a private sphere whilst in public (e.g. Hatuka and Toch 2016). Such ongoing debates highlight the various ways in which mobile computing and communication technologies are rapidly changing the nature of privacy. These debates carry extra weight with regards to public spaces, because they are characterized by interactions with strangers who may cause fear or be afraid themselves.
Various mobile personal safety technologies are emerging in order to alleviate such fears. They range from applications which can sound a loud siren to devices which promise to stream pictures of assailants to local law enforcement agencies while showering them in pepper spray (Pangaea Services Incorporated 2016).

This paper will investigate how such technologies are intervening in the processes by which we negotiate privacy in public spaces. The social nature of privacy in public makes the theoretical framework which Lefebvre developed in The Production of Space (1991) highly suitable for examining the changes brought about by emerging personal safety technologies: such tools empower their users in privacy negotiations, which reshapes how we can use, think about, and experience public places. Using Lefebvre’s framework shows that this empowerment also lowers privacy expectations and leads to a hollowed-out right to privacy in public: you can remain private, unless I fear you and stream your picture to the police.

Hatuka, Tali, and Eran Toch. 2016. ‘The Emergence of Portable Private-Personal Territory: Smartphones, Social Conduct and Public Spaces’. Urban Studies 53 (10): 2192–2208. doi:10.1177/0042098014524608.
Lefebvre, Henri. 1991. The Production of Space. Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith. Malden, MA: Blackwell.
Pangaea Services Incorporated. 2016. ‘What Is Defender 24/7’. Defender 24/7.
Smith, Gavin J. D. 2016. ‘Surveillance, Data and Embodiment: On the Work of Being Watched’. Body & Society 22 (2): 108–39. doi:10.1177/1357034X15623622.

PDF of the presentation

Freely available here.