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Breaching the fortress

Jane Duncan

How can architects help mitigate the conflict between privacy and security?

Privacy is no longer a ‘social norm’  – Mark Zuckerberg 

Security versus privacy must be one of the most critical debates of our times. But is one or other more important? How much privacy are you willing to give up for security? 

As architects, we use design choices to define privacy in our physical environments shaped by the cultural contexts and the preferences of our clients. With many people living in closer  proximity to each other in packed urban locations, design becomes even more important in protecting privacy. 

Research suggests that a hierarchy of spaces in the home is most appropriate with rooms for public, semiprivate, private, and personal functions all delineated and zoned. What I find interesting about investigating privacy and security in architecture is the creativity with which it can be explored, researched and manipulated with everything from specification of building materials to shape and form to landscape used to create a perceived sense of privacy and separation.   

Technology is forcing us to become less private and less secure in our own homes in subtle and sometimes disturbing ways

Technology is forcing us however to become less private and less secure in our own homes in subtle and sometimes disturbing ways unrelated to the physical world which we as architects so carefully craft.  It changes what it means to be private, and forces us perhaps to consider security first in this post truth age of growing uncertainty and insecurity. The Internet of Things (IoT) is growing every day, with 24 billion IoT or smart devices expected by 2020. This growth has benefits, simplifying everyday tasks like educational research or saving energy through insertion of smart meters and controls. But with benefit comes risk, since more connected devices give hackers and cyber criminals more entry points, increasing the danger that personal data is leaked and then traded. Walls thus no longer provide privacy.

Perhaps there is conflict between a building’s openness on the one hand and the reasonable control of access to it and to the detail of our lives on the other. What are the parameters for designing for privacy and security in the future?  

Contemporary buildings celebrate openness, light and free-flowing movement. Designs that constrain and restrict are not high on the wish lists of owners and are rarely in the minds of their architects. In order to embed a comprehensive security perspective, we need to take into account the inter­relationships between buildings, technology, security and other equipment, and the routines and exceptional activities of their users. Careful design can reduce the incidence and fear of crime and increase the quality of life, but this will need specialist training.  

Architects play a key role in shaping the environment and inserting the cues and signals that places and buildings send to their users and visitors. Whether a building feels safe, secure, and comfortable reflects how well the architect understands the context, lifestyle and intended uses of the building over its lifetime, including increasingly its users’ relationships with the good and bad of the cyber world. That’s a growing responsibility, and one that we must both equip ourselves for and embrace. 

I don’t know why people are so keen to put the details of their private life in public: they forget that invisibility is a superpower – Banksy


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