Personal Security: Finding the Right Level of Privacy

By Meg Bower

Everywhere you turn the issue of electronics and their role in personal security is prevalent. The Internet has given us access to a constant stream of data about everything from our heartbeat to how much milk is in the refrigerator. We can see any building from satellite or street perspective. The darker side of this vast array of information is the vague sense of privacy lost, of things that need not be known and things that are best kept unknown. The same people who worry about the Amazon Echo listening in and the TV with a camera watching them continue to carry on loud cell phone conversations in restaurants and bars. So, what is the right level of privacy and what is the right level of care for personnel working in corrections?

I grew up before personal computers and before a time when the population density was high. My family assumed a comfortable anonymity in our large, relatively diverse suburban community. We were not prominent citizens. We looked similar enough that we didn’t stick out. We were not rich. We did not attract attention, unless it was for the old automobile horn that our mother used to honk to call us in for dinner. Our family was ordinary — even boring. And that gave us a kind of invisibility — a cloak of regularity that made us unnoticeable.

Public figures often use protective strategies to screen their private lives from professional lives in healthy ways.

We took our invisibility so much for granted that it was a shock to visit relatives in the rural Midwest where everyone knew everyone and everything. I’ll never forget the time an older woman approached me at the local Presbyterian Church and said, “Hi, Sweetie! Now, whose daughter are you?” as she named all of my grandfather’s children. My comfortable anonymity stripped away, I felt exposed, even as this harmless neighbor of my grandpa’s attempted to link me in my family chain. It was unnerving for one accustomed to the cloak of not being known.

Today’s electronic exposure feels similar, but a bit more pointedly dangerous for those working in a correctional setting. The newest GPS trackers allow for probation to see where any client is at any moment in time and where staff are inside a detention facility. Security cameras can read license plates from cars that are a quarter-mile away from the camera as well as the face of the person who drove it there. The digital age has greatly enriched the criminal justice arena; however, they have also empowered criminals. There are dangers to offering access to information about where we live, what we do in our free time and who our loved ones are to individuals who may mean us harm. The potential power imbalance is unnerving to the point where some correctional personnel stick with older model flip phones or refuse to engage on social media. For those working in the correctional field, it can be hard to identify the line between personal security and paranoia.

Living near the nation’s greatest official eavesdropping agency (the National Security Administration) gave me years to contemplate the accessibility of my private life via electronics. We have always joked about how cell phone calls are dropped anywhere within a 10-mile radius of that location. We have long known that the government has the ability to “listen in.” We don’t worry though because we know our personal calls and texts are just static on the channel to anyone hunting for international terrorists. We are the packing material surrounding the crystal vase, the regular life surrounding vacation. We are ordinary, and that gives us a certain anonymity, even if someone is listening.

At the same time, the sense of exposure when I imagine my smartphone being searched at a border station gives me the same whirl-in-the-stomach feeling I had long ago when the (no doubt) well-intentioned woman at my grandpa’s church recognized me from my face.

The contrast makes me wonder — what is it about anonymity that makes us feel safe? How much privacy is enough, and how much is too much, particularly when very real criminals know and may target us?

Public figures often use protective strategies to screen their private lives from professional lives in healthy ways. These same strategies can be employed by people working in the criminal justice system. Physical, electronic and common sense strategies can all be used to maintain anonymity and a separation between personal and professional lives.

Physical security in criminal justice buildings help limit the proliferation of personal information. For example, when planning a criminal justice facility, planners and designers establish physical barriers to prevent the public from seeing whether individuals are in their offices or not, whether their cars are parked at work and what their personal vehicles look like. We place probation and other client service interview rooms in suites where staff prefer that visitors not see family pictures on their desks. We provide separate restrooms for staff so that they are not caught in a vulnerable situation by angry clients. We strip off the personalization and give anonymity. Next time you are at work, look for the ways your facility protects you and where it doesn’t, and seek strategies to improve what you can. Requesting a neutral place to interface may result in a new awareness that will benefit everyone.

The same approach to anonymity is a powerful filter online, particularly for correctional personnel who require an additional layer of electronic privacy. Think of ways to keep your real life separate. Set up a neutral email that doesn’t use your family’s name to use for anyone you have met through work, until they become a trusted friend. Use that email for electronic accounts that bridge work and personal lives. Blur your home on Google Maps using the available request on that site. Look yourself up from time to time, just to see what comes up. If you feel exposed by what you find, pick a few websites and work to get the information removed by telephoning or emailing the webmaster. It may take some time, but is well worth the effort to eliminate sources of information about your private life.

And finally, the actions you take offline can create a buffer to the easily available data on the Internet. Choose a nickname and ask people to use that at work, if you can. Remove papers with your address (like oil change documents, etc.) from your vehicle, so that if someone breaks into your car, they can’t immediately use GPS to find your home. Don’t use cute personal license plates that make it easy to identify which is your vehicle in a lot. And finally, be aware of verbal phishing — such as being provoked into bragging about your life — that will make it easier to find you online and in real life.

The challenge in today’s age of information proliferation via electronics is learning what level of exposure poses a risk and what is just a removal of anonymity or control — what makes us uncomfortable at being “seen” and what exposes us to real danger. But when you work in corrections, safer is almost always better.

Meg Bower, MPA, AICP, LEED AP BD+C, is a senior associate at Fairfax, Va.-based Dewberry.