The Privacy Issues Don’t Either Have to Get Worked Out

Anytime I see new technology mentioned in the popular press, someone will mention this throwaway line:

Well, that’s great, but of course the privacy issues will have to get worked out.

We say that all the time. Digital cameras. iPhones. Google Glass. Facebook. Wearable technology. Massive data sharing. Every tech innovation in our lives, and some reassuring pundit trots out to say, “All the privacy issues will have to be worked out.”

At my local gym, there are signs in the family changing room that forbid you to use a cell phone in the locker room. In theory, I can get kicked out of the gym for looking at a text or an email in the locker room. That’s ridiculous, but that’s the best solution they’ve got for the problem of pervs taking secret photos of other people in the locker room.

I’ve made a number of comments to friends and on Twitter about how angry I am about the NSA data revelations….and the other revelations related to warrantless wiretapping, and all the way back to the Patriot Act.

Make no mistake: I absolutely think our government ought to be using [and developing] the most sophisticated technology to catch bad guys and keep us safe.

But not if they accidentally vacuum up a bunch of innocent Americans’ emails and phone records to do it.

There’s lengthy evidence pointing out that the government often doesn’t even follow its own oversight protocols, never mind that they’re way too lenient for me in the first place. No, I DON’T trust them with my information, and not because I’ve done anything wrong — I haven’t.

Have you ever tested positive for “residue” in a TSA security line? I have. Earlier this year, when I was flying, my water bottle [empty, thank you] tested positive for a suspicious substance. My hands and water bottle both had to get swiped with the mysterious cloths they use, analyzed in a machine. And then I got waved on through. After reading this horrific account, it seems to me that the biggest point in my favor that day in the spring was that I was a middle-aged white woman dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt.

So no, we don’t have to work the privacy issues out. It certainly seems like we’re not going to bother, in fact. While I am pretty open about lots of my life online, there are entire volumes that aren’t online and won’t ever be. On purpose. Because Western philosophy [used to, anyway] highly regards the individual and his or her rights as an independent being. I have the right not to have the government, or a major corporation, divining and acting on those private items without my permission.

But I also don’t harbor any illusions about the reality of that. So yes, I think Edward Snowden is a hero, and I also think the NSA ought to be able to use the kind of technology he exposed — but ONLY when they can show cause to a judge who has the power to curtail abuse of power. We don’t live in that world today, and at the moment, it doesn’t look like we will anytime soon.

SXSW: danah boyd on The Power of Fear in Networked Publics

Always interesting to hear what danah boyd is thinking and writing about. Notes below are a mixture of quotes, paraphrases and near-quotes.

boyd starts off by recommending everyone attend Baratunde Thurston’s keynote at 2p.

Started with three points….I missed one.

  1. We live in culture of fear.
  2. Attention economy….SOMETHING.
  3. Social media is ramping up the culture of fear.

What are our responsibilities in the culture of fear?

Kranzberg’s First Law: Technology is neither good nor bad — nor is it neutral. boyd says: We shouldn’t pretend that it is.

Social media is now genuinely mainstream — it is no longer just a home of geek culture.

Culture of Fear
Fear is employed by marketers, politicians, media etc. to regulate the public. It’s used to control and surpress.

boyd doesn’t want to dismiss the value of fear as a real emotion. It’s a reasonable reaction to many situations.

How is fear used to control, particularly in an American context? Uses example of 9/11. Says it’s not new — look at Cuban Missile Crisis. As a country, we’ve been in “orange” alert for more than a decade now. Fear is operationalized in a public environment to keep us controlled. We don’t even reflect on it — we just do as we’re told.

Humans are terrible at actually assessing risk. — Freakonomics one book that writes on this. Also Barry Glassner’s The Culture of Fear.

Parents worried about Internet — but the MOST risky thing a parent can do is let the child ride in the car with them. Fear isn’t logical — it’s about the perception of risk. The things we don’t understand are the things we’re afraid of. Fear combined with insecurities is amplified. The intersection of young people and technology produces moral panic. Many historical cases remind us of the absurdities.

Fear cannot be combatted through data. If it doesn’t match their perceived experience, people reject the data.

The Attention Economy
We have built this through social media — provides a fertile ground for the culture of fear.

Quote from Herbert Simon: “In an information-rick world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes…the attention of its recipients.”

Social media gives us massive quantities of uncurated information. How do we cope with the onslaught?

Haha. Now shows a funny slide: Book in 1994 called The Internet Yellow Pages. This book looks very familiar…

Most of our tools are designed to make people feel guilty for all the things they haven’t read. No matter how we feel, one thing is clear: Amount of information is not going to decline. It is really hard to get people’s attention.

The more attention-seekers are fighting for attention, they seek to leverage emotion. Fear is so effective, so it is used more and more.

Fear is used in a more complex way on social media than it is on broadcast media. It’s personal and spread by each other in networks.

Radical Transparency
The notion that putting everything in the open will make people more honest. The logic rests on the notion that people hide things. The reality is much messier than that. People think about this in disrupting power structures, but it’s used against real people in more complex ways.

The practice of “outing” is not new. Tells story of Oliver Sipple.

What are real implications of Anonymous? Is radical transparency really effective?

In boyd’s work, most incidents of hate on teens happen with people they know.

With protestors/rioters, crowdsourcing who the rioters and looters are — method of control. Idea that people are controlled when they feel they are surveilled. Those are are oppressed and marginalized are usually those with the least amount of power.

The Ideal of Progress
The idea of outing etc. is that we’re moving toward an era of greater progress — that the incremental harm caused by outing will have a greater good. boyd says paths are often not linear…the ideal of progress may be an illusion.

Tolerance is often espoused as a neutral notion, but it’s not.

Exposure to new people doesn’t automatically produce tolerance, even though we might want it to.

There’s far more bullying, with more damage to youth, at school, than there ever is online. But the Internet has made bullying much more visible to adults, making adults leap to assumptions about where bullying happens.

Power in Networks
The people who make the networks control the system.

Talks about how the Kony 2012 film took advantage of powerful network building — across disparate networks. Invisible Children had been laying the groundwork with its network building for years. The problem is that nuance is lost.

In this country, there’s been a rise of hatred along with the rise of social media. With fearmongering. To say that we didn’t build this does a disservice — though we want technologies to be used for idealistic purposes. What happens is that these aren’t neutral technologies. How do we deal with this?

We don’t have good answers.

Through social media, we are ramping up the attention economy and creating new networks. We need to think about how that works long before it builds things we don’t like.

boyd doesn’t have good answers but challenges audience to figure this out.

Social media can be a great disruptor but it’s being used to enforce the status quo by many.

Online privacy reminder: You don’t have much

This quick read from the New York Times is a great reminder that your seemingly private online information isn’t all that private. While law enforcement can obtain a search warrant for even your home or business with probable cause [meaning there’s reason to suspect there’s evidence related to a crime], it’s apparently not all that difficult for it to subpoena [different from a search warrant] vast amounts of your online information, like email, social network account information and other online records.

I’m NOT a lawyer, but subpoenas and search warrants both require contact with a judge/judicial authority, to my understanding. But given continued evidence at how these tools are being used by law enforcement in some recent high-profile cases, it seems to me that even information like your search history could be easily obtained and used against you in court. Of course, if you’re just roaming perfectly legal and acceptable websites like, this should be of no concern to you. However, it is still quite concerning that your data can be accessed so easily.

Just imagine the line of questioning as the D.A. reads out your list of search terms related to WikiLeaks, Al Qaeda and terrorism. Ever go back and look at your search history? If you’re a heavy computer user, out of context, your search history probably makes you sound crazy, dangerous or both. I tend to look up any term or concept I hear about in the news, just to see the other information available on the topic. This is the kind of information — our stream-of-thought — that has been previously unavailable to law enforcement. And in a culture that breeds fear, I don’t want to have to answer for my search terms to a jury. Do you?

Topics from Junior League of Nashville training, 4/29/2010

Today at lunch and again this evening, I’m speaking to members of the Junior League of Nashville about managing your online identity. Because the audience is going to be very diverse in age range and current technology adoption, most of our discussion is likely to be Q&A around the topics of online identity and privacy, and on the flip side, taking full advantage of social media for personal or business reasons.

We’re going to use these links as our jumping-off points. I’ll report back tomorrow on how it goes!

In case you weren’t scared already….

The Motrin Moms debacle

Oversharing and location awareness

Kevin Colvin, busted for his Halloween partying

Most of us have been guilty of sending angry emails.

Managing your online identity

Everything you want to know about online privacy

Managing your privacy on Facebook

Get started with Twitter

Share photos: Flickr and Picasa

Share videos: YouTube and Vimeo

Location services: Foursquare and Gowalla

Special cases

Teaching your kids about media

This study matters

In a recent post, I was considering online privacy and data gathering. Today, a study came out on those topics — and the results aren’t good for advertisers or laissez-faire thinkers. But they may enable us to begin re-thinking the promise of the internet.

The New York Times does a nice writeup on the study, including a prominent link to the study [PDF, 411 KB] in the first graph. Way to use the internet. [It’s a shame I have to compliment the paper on that, but most publications don’t use links correctly or even at all, so let’s give props where they’re due.]

The study, conducted by professors from Penn and UC Berkeley, demonstrates what I’ve long believed to be true: People hate being tracked online. It makes them nervous. And they have no idea how the information is used, even when the use of the information is helpful to them.

Note I didn’t say that targeted advertising in particular is helpful. That’s one of the most common uses of personal data today. While targeted advertising does influence purchasing, people still don’t like the idea of it [as this survey demonstrates].

Now, I’m going to say something a little crazy here. Right now, the Internet is dominated by corporate interests. It is a marketing vehicle. Even in places where you believe yourself to be in control of your information, you are likely feeding a corporation’s self-interest. [Facebook, anyone?]

That doesn’t mean it’s bad. I continue to believe the Internet is a force for good, on the whole. But I also believe its full promise isn’t even close to being realized.

Doc Searls wrote an important post over the weekend, talking about the promise of the internet, and its current siloed existence. Searls is one of the four authors of The Cluetrain Manifesto, which to me remains the most important book written about the internet. Right now, your information is being used online to help companies make money. Sometimes, that’s also good for you.

When the promise of the internet is realized, you’ll be able to use your personal information to your own advantage, choosing to work with the companies you like. There’s a big difference.

Keep an eye on Congress

As long as I’ve been in digital media, there have been few political issues that have really riled up the industry. There’s a long-standing discussion about the right path for digital rights management to take — the copyright protection particularly for audio and video files — and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act enacted in 1998. There was the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, also passed in 1998.

While the telecommunications industry that much of the Internet rests on is heavily regulated, what we’re doing here online is not.

Regular laws still apply, of course, but the Internet has largely benefited from both a hands-off approach by Congress and federal agencies, and perhaps also from a lack of understanding of the intricacies of the technology.

Congress is beginning to catch up.

Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, and he’s reportedly working on a bill to protect our Internet privacy.

I look at issues like this from two perspectives:

  • Hey, I don’t want you collecting a bunch of data about me!
  • Wow, look how cool it is that my iPhone knows where I am!

Unfortunately for the sake of innovation, a lot of what we can now do online requires the latter response from regulators, Congress and the general public. Here’s what worries me: As Internet innovation has sped along the past dozen years, the industry has depended on the public and lawmakers ignoring the man behind the curtain. And Congress tends to act with a very blunt sword when it approaches issues like copyright, privacy and technology.

But in the industry, we haven’t helped ourselves with things like:

  • Inability to protect customers’ information from data theft
  • Opaque and lengthy terms of service and privacy policies that only make lawyers happy
  • Ignoring opportunities to make our customers our best defense against harmful legislation

I don’t think Boucher’s intentions are to in any way stifle innovation or hamper the industry. But he’s clearly targeting consumers’ sense that their privacy is compromised just by being online. As an industry, we have to do a better job of educating our customers about why our innovation and information is so critical to them — and we have to give them easy ways to opt out if they can’t get past the squeamish factor.

Recently, several Internet advertising groups released a set of guidelines aimed at protecting consumers and forestalling damaging privacy legislation. We’ll see if it’s enough.