What I’ve been teaching: Privacy

by Sunita

This spring I’ve been teaching a course on the politics of privacy. I first taught it as a summer school course two years ago, when I had half a dozen students and ran it as a seminar. It was a lot of fun, and I got to try out unfamiliar readings and unusual assignments. The following spring TheHusband taught it as a lecture course, and now this year it was my turn again (we plan to alternate).

It’s a pretty interdisciplinary syllabus. We start with sociological readings from the 1960s on the social construction of the self and the self in public, because you can’t understand the private sphere without thinking about the public sphere. The reading list includes everything from law articles and legal cases (including Romanceland’s own Carolyn Jewel) to economics articles to current EU, Canadian, and US statutes on privacy. And also Gawker and Reddit (yes, your tuition dollars are being spent on teachers who send their students off to read stories on Reddit. I’m sorry). We finish up by watching a couple of recent documentaries, 2014’s The Internet’s Own Boy (about Aaron Swartz) and CitizenFour (the 2015 Oscar winner about Eric Snowden, now on HBO, GO WATCH IT EVERYBODY).

I tell the students at the beginning of the class that teaching this class is in many ways a selfish act on my part. Those of you who followed my VM blog know that I’m very interested in the digital divide and uneven access to technology. My more than two decades online, especially the last decade and the explosion of social media, has made me think a lot about the intersection of technology and privacy. But as a certified member of The Olds, my take on these issues is very different from that of my students. Policies and laws are passed and implemented by people who are closer to my age than theirs, but they are the ones who have grown up in a connected world and will never have the option to leave it.

One of the truisms I see a lot in online discussions is that millenials “don’t worry about privacy.” That is not my experience at all. Some of them are blasé but many are not. Granted, I have a self-selected sample of millenials who are more likely to care about these issues. But even within this group, while attitudes vary about how much privacy they want or expect, they’re not ignorant about the benefits and drawbacks.

That said, they’re not always fully aware of how many ways privacy is not in their control, and one of the things I try to get across to them is an understanding of what kind of data are out there. They do an assignment they call “internet self-stalking,” in which they go to computers that they don’t usually use and surf via a variety of browsers to see how much information there is about them online, and where that information might have come from. Some of what they discover is expected, but other results are not. The students are often surprised by how much information is put online by other people. If they have commonplace names or share names with more famous people then they are safer, because their results will be lost among the rest. But if they have even slightly unusual names, they’ll show up.

If you’re an athlete as a young person, be prepared to have that information stay on line for a long, long time. I have a friend who set several US national records in track when he was in college. Some of those records still stand, and when you combine that with his unusual name, you can trace aspects of his life from college to the present without much difficulty. He didn’t supply this information; it came from newspapers and other public sources.

This virtual trail is essentially the problem of aggregation. No single piece of information is particularly revealing as a rule, but many small pieces of information can add up to a comprehensive portrait of a person. Not a complete portrait, but still one which contains information the individual may not want strangers to have access to. It’s analogous to the aggregation problem of metadata: governments constantly try to reassure their citizens that they aren’t collecting the content of phone calls, texts, and online behavior, they’re only collecting the metadata. But in the aggregate, metadata can provide a lot of information about a person’s behavior, preferences, and even personality.

In addition to news sources, aggregators like Spokeo, and harvesters of public records data (did you know that in the US, your party registration and political donations are public? And your home ownership data?), increasingly, information is put online by friends and family. You can have the most locked-down internet profile possible, but you can’t fully control what your nearest and dearest say about you. Allowing photos with you in them to be tagged on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram is the default setting. You may be a homebody, but go out with your BFF the party animal and you can wind up sending the opposite message online. Your parents, friends, and even spouses who are proud of your achievements? All they have to do is use your real name once and it will help to connect pieces of information you may have tried to keep separate. Similarly, if you use the same pseudonym for most of your online interaction, the pseudonym can create a chain of information, which can then be connected to a real name with one mention.

In the early years of the world wide web, the usenet/Compuserve/etc. years, a lot of people used the freedom of the internet to create and perform personas that they did not want linked back to their “real world” lives. That’s still true, of course, especially for people who are denied self-expression by their community or by society at large, and also for those who are especially subject to online abuse.¹  And it’s still all too easy in the US to be fired for online activity an employer dislikes, given so many states are “at will” states (no cause has to be given for termination). It’s hard to believe that it has been thirteen years since Dooce was fired for blogging about her employer.

In those thirteen years, the rise of social media sites and the push by companies like Google and Facebook toward using real names have created a different environment for more recent online participants, if my students are in any way illustrative. They grew up with Facebook, they’ve embraced Instagram and Snapchat, and they’re depressingly attached to Yik Yak (or so the student newspaper tells me; I don’t monitor them). Some of our business school classes require students to set up LinkedIn accounts. All of my students are on Facebook. And as a result, their real names coexist along with whatever pseudonyms they create for gaming, chat, and other types of activity. They don’t see the latter as a substitute for the former, or a cover for the former, but rather as a complement.

And I think this is a healthy development. Of course there are many good reasons to cloak one’s identity online, or to use a pseudonym for some activities. But the fact that we are online in so many places and we are connected to people who are also online means that using a pseudonym can give people a false sense of security. More and more, our online lives are connected to and inseparable from our offline lives. They are just as much our “real life” as any other part. The idea that we can construct firewalls between our various online and offline personas is a legacy of a different internet era. It’s one I have a hard time letting go, but my students seem to be way ahead of me.


¹The importance of pseudonyms in countries and contexts that restrict freedom of expression and use the internet to track activists and dissenters is critical, and we spend a chunk of time talking and reading about that.