Friday, April 06, 2012 1:28 PM
In July 2010, Pew Research Center released a report
on the online habits of Millennials. The experts involved in the study, who
were mostly academics and leaders at companies like Google and Microsoft,
concluded that social networking will only grow in importance despite privacy
concerns. In particular, many argued that sites like Facebook had created new
social norms around which the barriers
between “public” and “private” information were being recast. The study
echoed a controversial statement by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerburg made
earlier in 2010—that, among young people, privacy
is no longer a “social norm.”
That argument may be a
little harder to make today. In addition to debates over Facebook privacy
settings, over the past several weeks, controversies have erupted in a number
of states over employers
and schools asking for Facebook passwords from applicants, employees, and
students. And while everyone seems to agree that those employers are
overstepping their bounds, actually doing something about it is tougher than
you might think.
For one thing, legislation is woefully outdated,
says the Electronic
Center, or EPIC. The
closest thing to a law protecting online privacy is the Electronic
Communications Privacy Act, which was passed in 1986—a good 10 years before
widespread Internet use, not to mention smartphones and other new media. So
most of the law’s provisions apply only to landline phones and physically
stored data, rather than the smartphones, social media, and “cloud” storage
that have become such a large part of 21st century life. For
something like email, the rules are complex and cumbersome, reflecting an early
understanding of the technology, says the Center
for Democracy and Technology. If you happen to store your email on a home
computer, it is fully protected and requires a warrant to be searched. But if
you use a cloud computing service (say, Gmail), anything you store online can be
accessed without a warrant. That includes webmail, photo sharing sites like
Flickr, spreadsheets and documents on Google Docs—basically, much of what now makes
up many people’s personal and professional lives.
The rules for social
networking sites are even more complicated. While law enforcement generally needs
a search warrant to access a suspect’s social network account, they can do so without
the knowledge of the suspect, reports GOOD.
Facebook actually seems to be alone on this policy, as Twitter and Google have
their own rules about notifying their users of law enforcement action. In fact,
Twitter had to fight for its notification rule against a federal court ruling
in Virginia. And,
according to EPIC, at the same time, the Department of Homeland Security has an
ongoing program of setting
up fictitious user accounts on Facebook and Twitter to follow suspects’
posts (also without their knowledge).
Whether or not the DHS
program is legal or constitutional is not all that clear. Without more relevant
legislation, no one really knows where to draw the line—high courts being no
exception. In 2010, the Supreme Court heard two cases on email privacy, and both
times, they chose
not to address constitutional privacy issues, reports the National Legal Research Group. Wrote
Anthony Kennedy in the first case’s majority opinion: “The judiciary risks
error by elaborating too fully on the Fourth Amendment implications of emerging
technology before its role in society has become clear.” The implication
apparently being that until innovation stops and lets us take a breather, we
should be careful about fleshing anything out too much.
To be fair, Congress has
(half-heartedly) taken up some of these issues. Late last month, Democratic
Congressman Ed Perlmutter proposed an amendment to the FCC Process Reform Act
called “Mind Your Own Business on Passwords,” says The Atlantic. While the
amendment—which was almost immediately voted down—did not address government
snooping, it would
have prohibited employers from asking for workers’ passwords on sites like
Facebook. The strange reality is that, because of the vote and Facebook’s
own reaction to the controversy, the social networking site now has
stronger privacy rules than the U.S. government—at least when it comes to
That fact should be pretty
alarming. But if we go back to Zuckerburg’s “social norm” argument, it does
make some sense. Because technology moves so quickly, and because it has such a
big influence over our lives, it’s easy to simply accept new customs and rules
without seriously thinking about their impact. The Facebook password cases are
unique because they don’t involve government agencies or third parties breaking
and entering to access private data. Rather, they involve users willingly
giving up their privacy when pressured by people in positions of power.
The real danger here is
that social media are still very new, so if a practice like that became more
accepted, it could be difficult to undo. Laws and court rulings can be
repealed or overturned, but social norms can be much more permanent. Challenging
them might mean rethinking our place in the brave new interconnected
Research Center, The
Guardian, Electronic Privacy
for Democracy and Technology, GOOD,
Legal Research Group, The
Image by rpongsaj,
licensed under Creative
Friday, May 21, 2010 10:50 AM
The internet used to be called the information superhighway. These days, however, the lumbering and snorting of Facebook represent exactly the kinds of traffic control that characterize our internet age. The future of personal data is trending more public than private, worries Laura McGann at The American Prospect. As she recounts why she decided to abandon Facebook, McGann suggests that information isn’t shared so much as automatically dispersed:
Then I stumbled upon a list of the various third-party groups that have access to my account. In all, there were 32, including the makers of "Which Jane Austen heroine are you?" (I'm Fanny Price), The Awl, a snarky, high-brow commentary site, and Business Insider. The latter two I didn't recall approving. The media sites, I discovered, were installed automatically when I browsed their websites while logged in to Facebook. Jane Austen, I'm afraid, I must take responsibility for. Reports are unclear as to what information applications can pull from your account. Some warn that developers have broad access and do not distinguish between what you mark as public and private, and some quizzes even get access to friends' information.
Considering Facebook's track record of shifting privacy settings, which the Electronic Frontier Foundation wraps up here, and you can get a visual sense of here, it seems pretty much guaranteed that user control over personal information will only get weaker.
The American Prospect
Monday, April 26, 2010 3:20 PM
Every time privacy policies are tweaked at Facebook, you should be worried. The company is looking for new ways to make money, and in this day and age that means selling you things. And all of those personal details you've entered into your Facebook account are the keys to the monetization kingdom. Maybe that works just fine for you. That's not the problem. As users, we ought to have a clear choice and we don't. That's the problem. Since the most recent changes this month, we've been bumping into all sorts of sharp commentary on Facebook privacy and helpful guides to getting your privacy back. Here's the best of what we've found:
Want to get right to it and restore your privacy settings right now? Here's Valleywag's How to Restore Your Privacy on Facebook. And here's Mashable's guide to Disabling "Instant Personalization."
Perhaps the best analysis of the recent changes came via the Twitter account of tech-guru Anil Dash: "Will someone ask [CEO Mark Zuckerberg] why he doesn't use Facebook's default privacy at F8 tomorrow? If it's not good enough for him then why's it OK for us?"
Here's a creepy tool: Want to know what data Facebook published about you? It's a sluggish tool, since it seems the entire internet is there typing in usernames, but here it is: http://zesty.ca/facebook/.
In her CNET column, How Facebook Is Putting its Users Last, Molly Wood has this to say:
Let's be clear: I hold few illusions that Facebook's business strategy has ever been about anything other than building up a huge user base and then selling ads to those users. And obviously, the more targeted the ads, the easier it is to get people interested in them. But as the opportunities for data mining and targeting grow, Facebook faces a growing problem: how to get the data, if the users won't share it.
Facebook has created an unprecedented web (if you will) of connected users, with connections to other users who are more than willing to specify, in great detail, their interests, hobbies, and buying habits. The only problem? Those pesky private profiles.
Users tend to want to protect that data, at least a little bit, and at least some of it has to be "public," if it's to be used for the kind of behavioral targeting and, ultimately, ad targeting that really brings in the big bucks. And that is really the only explanation left for why Facebook has now gotten so shrilly insistent on you publicizing virtually every facet of your life. It's not about the user anymore, people (if it ever was).
It's possible that Facebook will do what it has done in the past when privacy concerns take hold of its users: offer up the non-apology apology. Daniel Sinker wrote a concise history of Facebook's non-apologies during the last time Facebook reminded us how much we value our privacy. He ended on a rather sour note, and it's where I'm going to leave you now: "Really, they've got all your content already—where are you going to go?" Ugh.
Image by Gauido, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, March 25, 2010 4:18 PM
Could over-sharing on Google, Facebook, and blogs mean the end of shame? On his blog Tweetage W@steland, Dave Pell writes:
The firehose that is the social web sprays (often very) personal details about others across your screen, whether you like it or not. The children of the social, realtime web will likely have encountered so many examples of what used to be secretive behavior that almost nothing will seem wildly out of the ordinary. While I have my deep reservations about the wanton nature with which we are throwing privacy to the curb, I do wonder (perhaps over-hopefully) whether the end of privacy might also herald the end of the often useless feeling of alienated embarrassment.
In their seminal work, The Cluetrain Manifesto, the authors wondered “What would privacy be like if it weren’t connected to shame?” Now, more than a decade later I’d ask a slightly different question:
Can shame survive in a world without privacy?
Will shame be able to so easily attack our minds when we are connected to a virtual army of those who share our perceived symptoms and situations?
Source: Tweetage W@steland
Monday, November 09, 2009 3:06 PM
In just four years, everyone on earth may be an author. When books were the dominant form of publishing, a small minority of the world’s population had their words published. Now, Twitter, Facebook, and social networking sites are making authors into the majority. From the year 1400 to 2000, according to in Seed, the number of published authors rose by tenfold every century. For the past decade, authorship has grown by tenfold every year. Eventually, the authors predict that everyone on earth will be published.
Near-universal authorship is changing society, Pelli and Bigelow write. People are “trading privacy for influence,” and businesses and governments are being forced to adapt to the power that individuals now wield. People who fret about illiteracy throughout the world may soon extend their concern to people who can’t publish.
That concern is misguided, Albert Jay Nock writes for the American Conservative. Universal literacy creates near-universal mediocrity in literature, according to Nock. Teaching the world to read creates a market for schlock that forces worthwhile literature out of the market. In the article, which is fittingly behind a paywall, Nock writies:
The average literate person being devoid of reflective power but capable of sensation, his literacy creates a demand for a large volume of printed matter addressed to sensation; and this form of literature, being the worst in circulation, fixes the value of all the rest and tends to drive it out.
Nock laments mass literacy for the bad writing it creates. He should prepare for mass authorship.
Source: Seed, American Conservative (subscription required)
, licensed under
UPDATE: We tried to reach Albert Jay Nock for a comment, but found the conversation a trifle one-sided. Indeed, Nock has been dead for more than half a century. We regret the error.
Tuesday, March 17, 2009 12:16 PM
Recording college lectures gives students the opportunity to learn beyond the restraints of a brick-and-mortar schoolhouse. The audio and video recordings also give professors the opportunities for disaster. The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that one professor was placed on administrative leave after appearing in a video called “apparently baked professor” that was posted on YouTube. Another recording pushed the lines of legality after a private conversation between a professor and a student about grades—a subject protected by federal statutes—was recorded and almost posted online.
The new recordings may threaten “the traditional freewheeling spirit of the classroom” according to the Chronicle, if professors are scared of saying the wrong thing on camera. Colleges are working to curb this tendency by making it easier on faculty to edit the recordings at will. With camera phones sitting in the pockets of nearly every student in college, however, the editing software may not offer much protection.
Image by Emily Walker, licensed under Creative Commons.
Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education
Tuesday, December 23, 2008 10:39 AM
Millions of people came together online during the 2008 election, working to get Barack Obama elected president. They donated money, made phone calls from the internet database, organized meetings, and blogged on the candidate’s website. And now, Barack Obama knows about all of them.
Many gave up their information willingly, volunteering their emails to sign up for MyBarackObama.com’s cutting-edge web 2.0 functionality or yielding their cell phone numbers to receive text messages with the latest campaign updates. The campaign’s army of volunteers also took to the phones and to the streets, asking people for information on their political leanings and issues important to them. According to Technology Review, the Democratic National Committee acquired some 223 million pieces of data on potential voters in the final two months before the election.
That information isn’t going away when Obama moves into the White House. People used to joke that the Republican Party was so successful at “microtargeting,” and knowing about potential voters, that they knew what kind pizza that each voters liked. Now, “GOP's data-gathering efforts look like the work of amateurs,”
Wall Street Journal. “It's illegal. There are statutory prohibitions on the White House from using tax dollars to directly lobby Congress by unleashing emails, calls and visits.”
Just one problem,” Karl Rove wrote last month in an opinion piece for the
It turns out that the Obama campaign's use of the data is almost completely unregulated,” Grimmelmann writes. MyBarackObama.com’s
The likelihood of the Obama administration selling its databases for money, or even sharing it with the NSA, seems slim. “The Obama campaign has the means and the opportunity to violate your privacy,” Grimmelmann writes, “but it doesn't have much of a motive.” The FBI and the NSA already have the necessary means to get that kind of information, and the Obama team wouldn’t want their databases compromised by outside influences.
Join the Discussion” feature to their Change.gov website, allowing people to weigh in on issues important to them. According to Reagan, there’s been talk of creating automatically generated voter profiles, with information on people’s personal voting districts and allowing them to easily connect to their elected representatives.
added a “
Tech experts are hoping that “Mr. Obama can convince the public to channel the energy wasted on inconsequential Internet tendencies into getting involved in government,” Regan writes. They could leverage their existing information to facilitate a greater connection between the government and other citizens, as long as other issues, including health care, the economy, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, don’t get in the way first.
Image by Quinn Dombrowski, licensed under Creative Commons.
Thursday, July 10, 2008 1:35 PM
Privacy experts panicked last week when a federal judge ordered Google to turn over sensitive information about its users to Viacom. The New York Times reports that some believe, “the video viewing habits of tens of millions of people could be exposed.” Viacom asked for the information to assist in a $1 billion copyright infringement lawsuit against Google’s video sharing site YouTube, but the case is sure to have larger implications than a few illegally posted videos.
Some privacy advocates have called attention to the inevitable flaws in Google’s system of collecting private data. Writing for Computer World, Jaikumar Vijayan asked, “what is Google doing collecting and retaining all that data in the first place?” According to Vijayan, the company is clearly trying to improve targeted marketing campaigns, but users should be skeptical of any company that keeps such a huge cache of personal information.
There is one way that Google could get back into the good graces of some privacy advocates. If they’re being forced to turn over all the personal information to Viacom, TechCrunch suggests that Google should simply produce it in dead-tree paper form. The information they’re ordered to turn over is estimated at about 12 terabites—enough to fill up the Library of Congress. Printing it all out wouldn’t be eco-friendly, but it would definitely slow down Viacom’s efforts to parse the info.
UPDATE: What does 12 terabites of data look like? Neatorama breaks it down: 2,615 DVDs or 5 billion single-spaced typewritten pages.
Friday, December 07, 2007 8:48 AM
After the Virginia Tech massacre, much of the public conversation focused on the tension between community safety and individual privacy. We heard from members of the university’s English department, who referred Seung-Hui Cho to counseling after reading his disturbing creative writing assignments. Could they—or should they—have done more to prevent the shootings?
Writing in Academe, Monica Barron addresses a more fundamental, less-discussed question: long before a creative writing teacher has to decide whether to call the counseling center or the police, how can she be attentive to the emotional realities of writing and reading—and in a way that both attends to safety concerns and honors the vocations of writing and teaching? For Barron, a professor at Truman State University and an editor of Feminist Teacher magazine, the answer lies in cultivating within the writing classroom an emotionally sensitive community that is itself capable of authorizing certain readings of its shared narratives, de-authorizing others, and discerning boundaries.
One highlight is her brief recounting of the Virginia Tech tragedy itself:
One April morning in Blacksburg, Virginia, a young man packed up his guns and went to school for the last time. He was done struggling to be part of any community of readers or writers. He was entering the community of killers. His fellow writers had noticed and remarked that he wasn’t simply retelling the stories of the tribe or trying to scare peers with over-the-top, out-of-control representations of experience; he himself was scary. His teachers were faced with a kind of reading they were unequipped to do: reading as diagnosis.
Our national community of readers is familiar with this narrative, with the riveting blow-by-blow of a shocking event. Barron retells it from a perspective few understand—that of the people charged with nurturing creativity, thought, and community in young adults.
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