What I’ve been teaching: Privacy
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.
The Edward Snowden was informative and pretty damn scary. When I first started online, I didn’t give much thought to a pen name. I don’t regret not using one and yes, I think it does give you a false sense of security in the age of IP addresses linking back to your real info, etc, or ISP complying with providing your real info to authorities, etc. You’d have to be a pro at hiding all of that to stay off the radar and no average citizen would be described as pros when it comes to privacy and security. There isn’t any real privacy anymore even if you don’t use the internet. The data that’s collected on you comes from all kinds of sources, credit cards, credit card leaks, etc. Annoying as f*. I do agree that the online life you have is connected to your real one. It’s all a balancing act, really. You just have to be vigilant in keeping certain things private. Like you said, I don’t think we have control over everything that links back to us but certain info is able to be limited from public consumption at least. I hope.
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We seem to be in a time period where we are working out how to manage the huge amounts of data that are collected and the way so much can be tracked back to us. Unfortunately the current political conditions don’t provide us with legislators who are going to help us manage that process, but maybe we will get there.
I say to my students that the data are not the problem, the problem is us figuring out how to negotiate the tradeoffs between the benefits of increased information and privacy. One thing I really enjoy about teaching this class is that my students give me hope. 😉
I’m so glad you found CitizenFour worthwhile. I think everyone should see it, regardless of how they perceive Snowden and what he did.
I haven’t seen CitizenFour – I don’t know if it’s available here but if I come across it, I’ll give it a look.
Did you see the John Oliver interview with Edward Snowden where he brings the privacy/data collection/NSA information down to dick pics? It’s a very neat way of explaining a very complex issue to people who aren’t experts in the field. Also, funny. (and scary).
I’ve only seen a bit of it, but thanks for the reminder! I need to send the link to my students, it will provide them a good precis of the issue as well as some comic relief during finals.
I think CitizenFour should get to you some time this year. HBO only broadcast it last month, so it’s new to the TV schedule, and I’d be very surprised if it didn’t become available worldwide.
As a lawyer, the issue of what is private and what is not is something that is increasingly coming up in cases. It is now routine for opposing counsel to ask for Social Media profiles, timelines etc. and for hard drives to be scanned. Texts and emails routinely entered into evidence. Unfortunately, it is scary that so many people, particularly “the Olds” have so little knowledge of how social media affects privacy and cannot seem to grasp the concept that there really is no privacy on the internet and social media. I would say that, in my experience, it too often is my 35+ year-old clients who have the hardest time grasping that everything they do online and on social media leaves a record. I have had several clients clients whose “private” Facebook postings ended up in the other party’s hands because one of their “friends” share the posts or the other side created a false identity and was able to stalk their posts/comments through likes and shares.” When they demand that I do something to “sue the other side for breach of privacy” and I tell them that there is nothing that can be done and that these posts are admissible evidence, they are shocked and outraged.
People are seriously under-informed about the ways in which their posts and comments can be used. Facebook in particular is difficult, because not only do you lose control over shared posts, the privacy settings change often enough that you have to be vigilant in monitoring them.
I am not on Facebook, but a photo of me is (tagged with my name). A friend took it and posted it, and he has every right to do that. I’m sure he’d remove it if I asked, but that seems weird too; it’s his property, after all.
There was a debate on Goodreads a little while back about whether reviews there can be used for blurbs by publishers. One person was convinced that because she was not a professional reviewer, her words could not be used for commercial purposes. That’s not the law in the US (and in fact the constraints on commercial fair use have weakened), but she was convinced of her position.
Not a comment on topic (absolutely fascinating and scary as it is). but on your formatting:
Why is the print so small now and the margins so wide? I really had to do some screen manipulation to comfortably read it. I really noticed the difference because I was just noodling around your former blog and it was so spacious and easy on the eyes.
(See, I go away for two weeks and everything changes…)
I changed the theme because the one I was using didn’t do indented text well at all, and it didn’t have an easy way to show the menu (I wanted people to be able to find my bio and contact information easily). So I messed around with a few and went back to Manifest, which is a theme I’ve used a lot in the past. But the print *is* really small.
I’ll switch to the same theme as I have at VM right now and see how that works from the backend. Thanks for saying something, I wondered if it might be too small.
Oh, Thanks you! My eyes especially thank you!
Your new header photo is gorgeous. Location?
You’re welcome, thanks for letting me know! That is a view of the south end of the SF Bay Area, taken about 20 miles south of San Francisco looking eastward. Believe it or not, it’s the panorama function on a smartphone. It came out really well.
I am really curious about your syllabus for this course. Particularly the readings you chose. I am wrapping up a PhD examining the balancing of privacy and security through law, policy, and technologies in Australia. I am always curious about other people’s perspectives – and how they approach the complexities of privacy issues.
And at some point, I hope to be teaching my own courses and sharing my experiences with others doing the same. As a lawyer-in-remission, a former technologist and technocrat, and having (briefly) flirted with high school teaching, I will always be learning from others – including my students.
It’s a combination of sociology, law, political science, and current affairs. We read the legal debates over privacy laws and statutes, as well as the philosophical discussions. And we spend some time on the social uses of technology and the transformations in online use over the last couple of decades. We explore contemporary controversies from doxxing to NSA surveillance to data protection (of the internet of things, for example) through the lens of the various laws.
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