Privacy in public 

What do we lose by connecting?

By Karen Herland

Communication studies professor Tim Schwab negotiates private lives and public events in documentaries. Magnifying glass

Communication studies professor Tim Schwab negotiates private lives and public events in documentaries.

As a documentary filmmaker, Tim Schwab is very conscious of his role in recording and presenting private, even intimate, moments to a broader public.

He will be talking about that on Nov. 4 in the evening session of Every Breath You Take: Surveillance, Security and the End of Privacy, the second in the President’s Conference Series.

He will be joined by his colleague from communication studies, Yasmin Jiwani and history professor Shannon McSheffrey, who will also be speaking on citizenship, identity and the practice of surveillance in everyday life.

Schwab sees these questions as related to documentary filmmaking, and believes they are currently in a state of flux.

“I come at this as a practitioner,” said Schwab. “A lot of my inspiration began with an engagement with oral history, reading Studs Terkel.”

A still from Schwab's <em>Being Osama</em>. Magnifying glass

A still from Schwab's Being Osama.

Schwab became fascinated with revealing individual stories that illuminate a broader historical or social narrative. For instance, in 2004, his documentary Being Osama presented the lives of six very different Montrealers and their experiences sharing the name Osama in a post-9/11 world.

Documentary filmmaking requires a direct negotiation with each subject on what and how material will be recorded, used and presented.

“I can guarantee what I will do with the data, but once it’s available in digital form, who knows what anyone will do?” said Schwab. “There are limits to what I can guarantee, because of the technology.” While in some cases that might mean the unauthorized use of a clip to promote a production, in other cases, it might be a complete recontextualization of sensitive material.

Schwab says the notion of consent itself is rapidly changing.

“The root of the word privacy is to ‘deprive’ or ‘withhold’,” he said, adding the assumption is that the material is unavailable or invisible and only accessible once consent is obtained. As Every Breath You Take will make clear in discussions throughout the day, the balance is increasingly shifting towards an assumption of public availability.

“I don’t think people have the same sense of giving consent anymore. If you want things to be private, you have to make a conscious decision to be off the grid.”

In some ways, those decisions are fairly obvious. Choosing not to have a web site or Facebook page keeps certain information out of the public domain. But many of the automatic ways we are captured on security cameras, or logged through our keystrokes, Google searches or financial transactions, are not even signaled to us. The information collected also does not have an expiry date, so that it can be retained long after we ourselves have forgotten.

Some of those more insidious tracking systems are being highlighted in Discoverable and Moebius Maps, a series of artistic projects planned for the days leading up to the conference. communication studies professors Kim Sawchuk and Owen Chapman are working with other professors and grad students in the department (including Schwab) to repurpose some marketing surveillance programs for creative (and illustrative) purposes.


Concordia University