Through What Lenses Do We View Online Privacy? Privacy in the digital age is a complicated and scary thing. Allow me a metaphor: we take for granted that when we close a door, we cannot be seen. We disarm ourselves, relax. We do the same thing when we go online. We often think that just because we aren’t using social media, what we do is private. But the internet has no doors, only windows from which we believe we watch the world with relative safety. But the world can (and often does) watch back. It’s terrifying how few of us know who can see or access what we do online. People have gotten so caught up with things like the zika virus, the 2016 election circus, and the murder of gorillas that they’ve forgotten to keep watching the people who watch them. Some folks are so out of touch they do not even consider the fact that they are being monitored at all. A Closer Look In a journalism article titled Uncle Sam and the Illusion of Privacy Online, Adrienne LaFrance documents and discusses federal and state agencies’ use of Twitter to monitor and document alleged criminals. In summary, she publicizes these agencies’ ability to request (and almost always receive) the private user data of their targets. As Orwell feared, the government is allowed to watch and act on what we say, regardless of whether or not we mean it or if the words are taken deliberately out of context. When we examine the implications, things get more upsetting. If alleged criminals are digitally posting sensitive information about their personal goings-on, they are clearly not cognizant of the publicity and ease of access that social media outlets like Twitter afford their words. If these alleged criminals were aware, they would not be posting at all, knowing that the police (or any three-letter government agency) could just ask to see their private conversations, tweets, and messages. And don’t even get me started on the power George W. Bush afforded the NSA. As the old adage goes: don’t write anything you wouldn’t want read back to you in court. Alleged criminals are not even the only ones who disregard the potential consequences of their online actions. Danah Boyd’s book on adolescents in the 21st century, It’s Complicated, goes into great depth on how today’s youth interact with the digital world and how they view social media (and other forms of self-documentation). In her second chapter, Boyd discusses the unique pathology teens exhibit in refer-
ence to their online spaces. The general consensus amongst her young interviewees was that just because something was online did not mean it wasn’t private. They wanted to publicize thoughts, events, feelings, and images to their specific social spheres, but they did not want the information they posted accessed by parents, teachers, or any other adult authority figures. While it is interesting (if paradoxical) that teens want to communicate with a private public (or public private group- the specifics are muddled), it is frightening that this generation of youngsters is not concerned about who may access their personal information. It goes beyond just the cautionary tales
of stalkers and psychopaths who will find the teens’ digital profiles to exploit them. These teens are not discussing the social and political ramifications of world wide access to personal data. If they are not aware of the scope of their digital choices and actions, then they may find themselves in the same poorly-cogitated position of politically-minded adults who think it is okay to give the government full access to their data because “they have nothing to hide.” Ask Yourself... What we need to consider is that anything we do or say on the internet (or digitally with cellular phone texting services) is being recorded, watched, and probably analyzed. We need to be asking questions like, who is watching? Why are they watching?
Are they allowed to be watching? Should they be allowed to be watching? What do they want? And through what lenses do they see our data? For instance, a private investigator will have a completely different outlook on our social media profiles and text data than will a corporate entity trying to target us for advertisements, and it is a different story still if it is a federal or state entity clamoring for our data. Overwhelming Fear Continues I learned in Colleen A. Reilly’s worrisome Coming to Terms: Critical Approaches to Ubiquitous Digital Surveillance that Google has been collecting data on individual users’ search histories to produce a sort of digital portfolio of their perceived interests. These portfolios are usually a good indicator of individuals’ hobbies, needs, and wants.Google can then sell this information to practically any “legitimate” corporate entity, who may then easily resell the information down the chain of business. This sort of behavior, of collect-
ing private information and then selling it, is a terrible, unethical business practice. It’s the kind of mentality that allows debt buying, telemarketing and telescamming, and a slew of other issues. Proceed with Caution Not understanding or even being aware of the ramifications of being personally targeted by outside interests is dangerous. Just one of the results is more specific, convincing click bait that can lead to downloading malware on your computer. Most of the technologically literate know not to click on pop-ups or ads- or they just have adblockers and anti virus programs installed- but the technologically literate are no longer the only ones surfing the web. Children and older adults are now far more digitally connected than before due to increased ease of access. These susceptible demographics often click on the ads or banners or what have you, even when they know they should not, because the ads have been personalized to use their names and area codes. Some ads go as far as looking like links to journalism articles about issues dear to the users’ hearts, as evidenced by their digital interest portfolios. Worse still is Google’s use of the digital portfolios to tailor search results, showing only what the algorithms think the user wants to see rather than showing the most relevant search results. This breach in privacy is one of the most upsetting of all to me, because it literally
limits what information one accesses at face value. I recognize how easy it is for me to sit here and criticize the dangers of big data collection. Like all things, it is not inherently bad or evil. There are phenomenal potential applications of massive data collection. In some ways, it is like having a thumb on the pulse of public digital culture. It is easy to get a read on what people are currently talking about, what people are worried about, what people are misinformed about. This knowledge can and should be used for good! But the corporate interests, and the private social media companies like Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and the rest, are in control of the big data sets and aren’t loosening the leash anytime soon. From the perspective of the humanitarian, this is bad because academics cannot access, process, and synthesize valuable information from these data sets. From the perspective of the global citizen, this is good because corporate entities cannot freely access anyone’s data. Then again, the people who usually receive the highly valuable big data sets are the big businesses because they have the money and wherewithal to seek audience with the top members of these social media giants to broker deals for the coveted information of the masses. So we might as well just make the data available to the scholarly circles who want to use it to further human knowledge, if we are going to continue letting it be freely manipulated by corporate interests. The point isn’t to pretend Big Data doesn’t exist- that’s like having an apple pie out in the middle of the mall next to a sign saying “Please don’t eat this.” Inevitably, some schmuck will come around and eat that pie. (Side note- they’ve been eating the pie for almost two decades at this point.) But we deserve a slice of that pie too, seeing as how “we the people” are the ones who made it. Our awareness of Big Data’s existence and potential applications means we can continue growing as a species, if we are willing to execute due diligence. But we must also keep an eye on what is being accessed and how it is being used, to make sure everything is legal, fair, and safe.
Tiers Congdon is a Writing Arts student at Rowan University.
A zine exploring digital practices and culture.