Invading Our Own Privacy

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.’

It’s tempting to write off those darn kids as narcissistic or obsessed with fame, as Lakshmi Chaudhry does in the Nation (Jan. 29, 2007). After all, as she points out, ‘Celebrity has become a commodity in itself, detached from and more valuable than wealth or achievement.’ What’s received little attention, though, is the ways corporations are stacking the digital deck.

‘Young people are now heavily engaged in identity exploration and development well into their 20s, and the Internet has become their primary tool,’ says Kathryn Montgomery, professor of communications at American University and author of Generation Digital (MIT Press, 2007). ‘Companies build brands by purposely cultivating this process, creating spaces where they’re encouraging people to pour their hearts out. It’s like a diary — but there’s no key.’

On February 22, reported that Fox Interactive Media, a division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., which owns MySpace, had hired a high-tech ad firm to mine user profiles, blog posts, and bulletins to ‘allow for highly refined audience segmentation and contextual microtargeting . . . which might put it in more direct competition with the likes of Yahoo, AOL, and MSN.’

‘I don’t think kids understand the long-term consequences of our surveillance culture. I’m not sure any of us do,’ Montgomery says. ‘But it’s the responsibility of educators and policy makers to make sure we’re educating people about the value of privacy and what it really means to give it up.’

In that spirit, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education (Jan. 12, 2007), two professors at Drake University’s law school, worried that their students’ casual approach to digital correspondence could hinder their careers, started a class stressing online discretion. The lesson, according to one student, is simple: ‘If you are not comfortable with shouting your comments from a street corner, you probably shouldn’t convey them via electronic print.’

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