Invading Our Own Privacy

Tell-all blogs, digital surveillance, online profiling: Who needs Big Brother?

| Utne Reader May / June 2007

It's a good guess that the last thing the newly hired editor of an alternative newspaper would want a grizzled group of journalists to know is that the person he'd most like to meet is Howard Stern. Yet hours after Kevin Hoffman was tapped to take the helm at City Pages, staffers at the Minneapolis weekly, who had yet to meet the 30-year-old in person, were reading all about their new leader's love of Stern, ultimate fighting, and The Real World on his MySpace page and sketching a less than favorable caricature.

That same week in late January, Jessica Blinkerd, a 22-year-old California woman charged with drunken driving and vehicular manslaughter, received a tougher-than-expected sentence, 64 months in prison. Despite having professed deep remorse in court, Blinkerd had posted pictures at MySpace of herself out on the town after the accident, drinking with friends and sporting a shirt advertising a brand of tequila. 'Why would probation get your attention?' the judge asked.

Both cases, one comical, the other life-altering, illustrate a commercially driven cultural trend whose consequences may not be known until well after debates over the merits of wiretapping, the Patriot Act, and digital spying are resolved in Congress. People of all ages, but especially those between 18 and 34, have become so comfortable with online commerce, instant correspondence, and daily confession that personal privacy is being redefined and, some argue, blithely forfeited.

'Young people have already embraced the frenzied commercial environment of the digital marketplace,' says Jeff Chester, founder and executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. 'The prevailing paradigm is a seamless integration of content, communication, data collection, and targeted marketing.'

The technological assault on our anonymity is gaining speed: Surveillance cameras and now cell phones track physical movement; computer 'cookies' transmit buying habits, political affiliations, and sexual proclivities. And now, according to Science News (Jan. 13, 2007), because computer users have 'characteristic patterns of how they time their keystrokes [and] browse websites,' researchers are learning how to use 'typeprints, clickprints, and writeprints, respectively, as digital forms of fingerprints.'

New York magazine (Feb. 12, 2007) points out that people of all ages are susceptible to these intrusive technologies, but it's twentysomethings who are, paradoxically, the most savvy about how they can be watched and the least likely to self-censor. 'In essence, every young person in America has become, in the literal sense, a public figure,' writes Emily Nussbaum, who posits that online differences represent the first true generation gap in nearly 50 years. 'And so they have adopted the skills that celebrities learn in order not to go crazy: enjoying the attention instead of fighting it.'