Archive for the ‘privacy’ Category

Teaching about Privacy and Surveillance: Real Life is not an Episode of ‘24’

November 5, 2015 Leave a comment

Privacy is an increasingly important social implication of technology, and we spend quite a bit of time about it in our required undergraduate ethics and social implications of technology class, CS 4001. Since we’re talking about privacy, it makes sense to talk about surveillance. Since 2004, I’ve taught a class about The USA PATRIOT Act, and more recently I’ve added a class on information revealed by Edward Snowden. I spend more time preparing for those classes than for any other two or three put together—it’s confusing and complicated. There are provisions of the Patriot Act that are absolutely essential—like broadening the jurisdiction of warrants to tap phones to the entire country (rather than making you get a warrant in each state). And others that are egregious violations of our liberty—like the section 215 provision that lets the government get the records of any organization without a warrant or probable cause and bars the organization from acknowledging the search. The FBI can simply demand the membership list of a mosque—and they have done so. For the last two years, I’ve assigned my students to watch the PBS Frontline documentary United States of Secrets, about US warrantless surveillance (“The Program”) and information leaked by Edward Snowden. In our class discussion, we don’t focus on Snowden, but on other people—like NSA analyst Thomas Drake—and the tough decisions they had to make. After class on Tuesday where I carefully spell out what’s allowed under the Patriot Act and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), I feel like a bit of fool on Thursday when we discuss The Program and the fact that all those rules aren’t really followed anyway.

I do my best not to express any opinions to my class—I present the facts, and ask them what they think. And as much as possible, I emphasize tradeoffs and try to show the issues as complicated. And then I walk back from class and scratch my head—what do I actually think?

After class last week, two things became clearer in my mind. The first is about checks and balances. My children are learning about checks and balances in elementary school social studies class. Checks and balances are fundamental to how our government works. And it suddenly became evident to me that most cases of the system going too far are situations where checks and balances are not occurring. You don’t need a court order to get records with a National Security Letter (NSL). Why not? A secret court like the FISA court could do the job. And if it’s urgent, the review could take place within a reasonable time after the fact (as FISA mandates for surveillance.) It’s too much to ask any one branch of government to police themselves. The FBI needs to pursue things as aggressively as they dare, and the judiciary needs to say, “You may go this far and no farther.” Parts of the Patriot Act removed checks and balances, and procedures without checks and balances are where we get into trouble. Everything you need to know we all learned in elementary school—but somehow, we’ve forgotten it.

The second thought is about means and ends. It is possible for me to describe a fictional situation in which reasonable people would agree that that the ends justify evil means—like recording everyone all the time, or torturing someone for information. If you don’t agree with that statement, make the situation more extreme until you do. But in real life, the evidence for the need is almost never that compelling. If you demand an iron-clad case, you’ll (almost) never say the ends justify evil means in real situations. Real life is not an episode of ’24’.

Hulk Hogan and Social Media as the New Big Brother

August 4, 2015 1 comment

Have you ever said anything you regret? Anything that is a little bit offensive? Anything that might get you fired? Ever get angry and vent inappropriately? Have you done that any time in the last eight years?

Last week, wrestler Hulk Hogan was released from his contract by the World Wresting Federation (WWE) because he had been recorded in a racist rant eight years earlier. Am I the only person disturbed by this? I don’t condone racism. And I’m not ready to invite Hogan over for tea. But was it a pattern of behavior over time, or just one rant? He apologized for the rant. Are we allowed to be wrong and grow and change any more? No matter what he said, should a person’s life be changed by one rant?

WWE is a publicly traded company, and they are within their rights to fire anyone for not meeting the terms of their contract. I don’t know what Hogan’s contract says, but I’m sure they have a lot of leeway. Hogan has moved over the years from being a feature attraction, to nice to have around, to now a liability—so they let him go. But this is representative of a broader trend: we are moving dangerously close to a world foretold by old science fiction novels. Where one angry moment, captured on video, changes your life. In Orwell’s 1984, it was the government that was responsible for surveillance. In 2015, it’s the public and the media—spread via social media. Social media is the new Big Brother.

OK, at least Hogan knew he was being recorded. That’s not true for the employees of Planned Parenthood who were surreptitiously recorded, and the results edited and shown out of context for political purposes. It’s not true of the employees of Acorn who similarly targeted in 2010. And it’s not true of LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who was recorded making racist remarks by his girlfriend in his own home. As a result of those remarks, Sterling was forced to sell the team. His case is arguably the most disturbing, because he was in his own home at the time the remarks were made. Lately it seems like we all might be recorded at any time. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say may be used against you in the court of public opinion. 

Hulk Hogan might be a bit racist. A preponderance of reports confirms that Donald Sterling is definitely a racist—that tape was just the tip of the iceberg. But no matter how despicable Sterling is, I believe in his right to privacy in his own home. The source of these privacy violations is not the government, but the easy ability to record video and share it over social media. But the solution to our eroding privacy is not clear.

Categories: privacy, social computing Tags:

Anyone feel a chill in here?

June 23, 2013 4 comments

I was about to follow a socialist acquaintance on Twitter this afternoon, and hesitated for a second. It wasn’t rational–it was just a feeling: Is this smart? Is someone watching who is watching radical people?

My own politics are pretty moderate, bordering on boring–I try to see both sides of issues. But I love far left folks–they make me think. And it appalls me that I hesitated with the “follow” button. This is the chilling effect of indiscriminate surveillance.

Categories: privacy, social computing

Why LinkedIn is Creepy: Asymmetry of Visibility

February 3, 2012 12 comments

A friend recently shared this story: he was having trouble finding contact information for an old friend, and it occurred to him that his ex-girlfriend would be in touch. So he looked at his ex’s LinkedIn page to search through her list of contacts.  It turns out, though, that his ex has a premium LinkedIn account, which gives you a list of everyone who has looked at your profile.  She contacted him, “I see you were looking me up….”  This was NOT what he wanted. I suppose if Shakespeare were writing today, this is would be prime material for a modern Comedy of Errors.

What is uncomfortable about this situation is the asymmetry of visibility and awareness. She has a premium account, and can see more. He does not, and was erstwhile unaware that anyone had the ability to track profile views. It’s like a hidden surveillance camera. Principles of social translucence suggest that mutual visibility facilitates successful cooperative behavior. One-way mirrors are creepy.

Over Sharing

October 7, 2011 1 comment

I might play a quick game of Bejeweled Blitz right now, but my friends would see my score. I’m kinda bad at it. It shows your high score for the week to all your friends.  I like the game because it takes one minute to play, and a couple one-minute games is all I have time for most days. But it takes me five or six games at least to get a non-embarrassing score.  Mid-week, I’ll stop in and play one game. At the start of a new week, I know I need 15 to 20 minutes to achieve something approaching dignity in the score my friends see.  And lately I just haven’t had 15 minutes, so I’ve stopped playing altogether.  There’s no way to tell it “don’t share my score.”

More and more social computing apps are over-sharing.  Especially Facebook. On Facebook yesterday in the new  scrolling timeline feature that shows what your friends are doing, I saw a work colleague say something… something edgy to a male friend of his I don’t know.  He would never say anything like that at work. I wanted to cover my eyes–I didn’t need to see that.  I can’t un-see it.

If Facebook’s increased visibility causes problems for work/personal life boundaries, I can only imagine what issues it causes for people who are in a dating phase of life. I am having nightmarish visions of the drama that ensues with people watching their beloved post an innocent comment on a friend’s page and agonizing over whether there is flirting taking place.  This inadvertently happened to me in prehistory (the mid 1990s). Our sysadmin had accidentally left our UNIX history files (the record of commands you’ve typed) readable to others on the system by default, and a fellow grad student I’d gone on a few dates with jealously demanded an explanation for why I was fingering (looking up the online status of) my friend Brian so much.  Um, Brian and I were working on a class project together?

I don’t know why I care whether my friends see my Bejeweled score.  I don’t really–I don’t have any problem blogging about my Bejeweled ineptitude. But it’s just enough disincentive for me to stop playing that game. Going forwards, I imagine sites in general will land on different spots on the “how much to share” spectrum, and people will pick sites to use that are comfortable for their style. But as site designers we still need to understand more deeply how much sharing is too much.

Political Me & Professional Me

August 15, 2011 2 comments

Do you keep your professional and personal identities separate online?  I’ve tried a few times to set up different accounts, but it never quite works. And I know you shouldn’t share anything online you don’t want everyone to see.  Once you share anything with a third party, they could do anything with it–by accident or on purpose. So mostly I try to keep my politics to myself.

This is particularly important to me, because I teach classes with students with a wide range of political views. In particular, I teach our class “Computers, Society, and Professionalism,” which touches on a lot of controversial content. Often I find I have the most in common ethically with some of the students whose political views are most divergent from my own. Whoever they are, I want them to feel comfortable in my class and know that their view of the world is respected and taken seriously (which it is).

I’m not always so careful–I often post things about freedom of speech online, privacy, or protecting our oceans. But I’m not as free to express my views as I’d like to be. This leaves me in a bit of a quandary: My new research project is about encouraging people to be involved in civic affairs. One of our working hypotheses is that giving people public credit for being involved may encourage them to be more involved.  But should they really do that?  I wouldn’t want to encourage people to be politically active in ways that will have unfortunate personal and work consequences for them in the future.  Is being reserved about one’s political views in public being a responsible, pragmatic grown-up, or being a coward?

The public exchange of views is a fundamental premise of democracy.  I believe that encouraging people to be involved is essential. But maybe the new system we’re developing needs to have some reminders–choose your issues carefully!  Or you may regret that posting, like you may come to regret a tattoo–a permanent record of a temporary feeling.

“Zones of Domination”

December 4, 2010 1 comment

In 2000, science fiction author Neal Stephenson gave an inspiring talk at the Computers, Freedom, and Privacy (CFP) conference. He entitled it “Zones of Domination.”  In the talk, he told the story of a whistleblower at the Hanford Nuclear Reactor. In the “big brother” model of authority, there is one entity and it is irredeemably evil. In Stephenson’s story, he followed our heroic whistleblower as forces from one federal government agency tried to frighten and falsely entrap him, but then the police and courts (local and federal) helped him resist and prevail. Stephenson’s point is that there is not one authority, but many. None are irredeemably evil. And the interesting activity is in the areas of overlap.

Roger Clarke posted some notes on the talk. He summarizes:

Big Brother Threat Model	The Domination Systems Threat Model

one threat			many threats
all-encompassing		has edges
personalised			impersonal
abstract			concrete
rare				ubiquitous
fictional			empirical
centralised			networked
20th century			21st century
irredeemable			redeemable
apocalyptic			realistic

(Roger Clarke,, 2000)

In much of the rhetoric about the Wikileaks incident, it seems to me that people are using a naive “Big Brother” model of government. The Government is one thing, and it is irredeemably evil. We can come to a more nuanced understanding of the situation by adopting a Zones of Domination model. There is not one univocal government–there are many interacting entities. None are irredeemable. The enemy is bureaucracy and opacity. The key to achieving just ends is increasing accountability and transparency within and between branches of government.

In the end, what we have is the hardest research problem in Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) one could imagine. And the most important. How do we increase transparency within and between branches of government? How do we do that and at the same time keep sensitive information secure? The presence of the Bradley Manning’s of the world makes this critical problem orders of magnitude harder.

Categories: CSCW, ethics, privacy

Privacy Goes Mainstream

May 15, 2010 2 comments

Twenty years ago, I worried a lot about privacy. As a graduate student at the MIT Media lab, I started a mailing list on privacy. I volunteered to be the graduate student representative on the faculty committee on privacy. When MIT implemented a new ID card system that recorded your comings and goings, I spent countless hours talking to everyone–the director of housing, the chief of police, the director of parking…. I asked them, what data are you recording? How long are you going to save it? What kinds of requests for that data are you going to honor?

It was a lonely hobby. Lonely and a bit depressing. Because no one else seemed to care. After a while, it was hard not to shrug my shoulders and say, “maybe I’m blowing this out of proportion.”

It is indeed possible to blow privacy out of proportion. I willingly use a frequent shopper card at the supermarket. They get marketing data that is valuable to them, and I get a discount. I realize that this can be used to manipulate me. For example, if you usually buy brand X, they will give you a fantastic coupon for brand Y that they happen to make a better profit margin on. They’re trying to change your habits. So I try to remember not to change my regular habits without thinking about why. I’m sure I’m manipulated in other ways I’m not as savvy about. But in the end, it’s a trade-off, and I don’t mind.

A very smart man, MIT Professor Jerry Saltzer, once told me: “Privacy is a database correlation problem.” I think that sums up the core issue quite elegantly. It’s not about what the supermarket can do with my data, but what you can do with my data from the supermarket, the garden center, the pharmacy, and the bank all cross-referenced together. Which is why I found it kinda creepy today when I re-loaned my small contribution on, and a window popped up asking if I wanted to publicize this on Facebook–including my Facebook photo. It feels intrusive. I clicked “no thanks” and in this case there’s no harm done. But you can start to imagine scenarios where it gets more intrusive.

My Twitter and Facebook accounts are filled with complaints about Facebook privacy today. So filled that people are starting to compalin about the complaints. I laughed at this tweet today (by @johnmoe, RT by @zorbadgreek): “Sorry to hear your Facebook privacy may not be absolute. That’s a real tragedy. Love, The Marine Life of the Gulf of Mexico.” He’s right that Facebook privacy is small potatoes in the grand scheme of things, and the gulf oil spill may well emerge as one of the great tragedies of American history. But in another sense, it’s a very big deal: it’s an awakening. A public awakening. People are recognizing privacy as a real issue of concern. Worrying about your privacy is suddenly mainstream. And this I think will also ultimately be seen as a notable moment in history–a turning point.

Categories: privacy

Personal and Professional, All Mixed Up

April 22, 2010 8 comments

When my friend Ian Strain-Seymour made a private twitter account, separate from his professional one, I thought that was a pretty great idea. I tried it too. I’ve written about that here before. I was optimistic about it: put personal info on the personal/locked account, talk about work on the public/open account. I had a simple rule for who to add on my personal account: people who were invited to my wedding (and don’t work with me currently). Ie, real close friends. It seemed like a good idea.

I’ve tried it now a while, and it’s not really working. There’s one main reason: my friends (other than Ian) are not doing the same thing. So while I was posting cute kid stuff there (that I wouldn’t inflict on the general public), high-school buddy Paul Haahr was posting mostly work stuff. If Paul and my other wedding invitees had two accounts, it might’ve worked. But with social media technologies, you can’t just choose how you use it–how everyone else uses it shapes what makes sense for you too. It’s hard to unilaterally decide to be different.

At the same time, my Facebook usage has gotten somewhat more personally oriented lately. As more family come on Facebook, I’m more likely to post the cute thing Evan (4) said, and get responses back from Evan’s aunts and grandparents. My cousin Gilda never says anything on Facebook, but whenever we talk on the phone she says “oh, I saw that on Facebook!” I like sharing personal stuff with my cousin and extended family. A short article mentioned this blog in Le Monde a few weeks ago, and one of my french cousins was kind enough to assure me that the article made sense (I don’t remember as much from french class as I wish!) This is new for me and it works. Except  now it puzzles me why I’m sharing this stuff with my professional friends.

Maybe I should try having two Facebook accounts. No, wait…. 😉

Amy’s Prediction: In 20 Years No One Will Be Qualified to Be President

January 22, 2010 2 comments

Today’s teens are pouring their most personal thoughts onto the Internet. They flirt, they gossip, they angst, they brag about being naughty–just like we did when we were teens. Except the problem is, the Internet is a surprisingly persistent medium.

An old joke says that taking information off the Internet is like taking pee out of a pool. Sure you deleted it, but did the server keep a backup?  There’s likely a backup on Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive, Before you decided to delete it, did a friend save a copy? When you post information online, you lose control of it.

Teens say the most amazing things. My friends and I had a great deal of fun, and I’m relieved to say it’s all forgotten or at least not documented in my own words or photos. (If I appear doing anything unseemly  in Anne Mini‘s new novel, I can simply deny it!) If all of our coming-of age angst was saved for posterity, I’d be appalled.  I think most people look back on their teen and young adult years that way. At least I hope they do.

What happens when young adult antics are archived? The thought gives one pause. Will the bride data mine the groom before the wedding (or vice versa)? Will the colleague with an axe to grind dig up ancient history to use as a weapon? Are we entering a new age of harassment by ancient history, a golden age of blackmail?

I suspect that most teen and young adult antics will stay obscure, and if they’re uncovered folks will mostly just laugh and reminisce. But there’s one special category of people who may not get away so easy: public figures. Actors, musicians, and athletes can probably survive the scrutiny. But what about politicians? We still elected Bill Clinton, because he said he “didn’t inhale.” What happens when the future political candidate is inhaling on camera, memorialized for posterity?

I see a few possible outcomes. One is that teens over time will learn to be more careful with their personal information.This I think is inevitable. Which leads us to the prospect that we will have one lost generation of potential future politicians–the generation who didn’t yet know to be careful about their personal information online. Like the donut hole in medicare coverage, we’ll have a lost zone between those too old to have been online much and those young enough to know to be at least a bit careful.

Another  potential outcome is that we as a culture will learn to be more tolerant of what people do in their personal lives, especially as youth. Europeans tend to be somewhat more tolerant already–to draw a clearer line between personal and professional behavior. Americans are plagued by an endearing notion of “Character”–that what we do in our personal lives speaks to our fitness for professional tasks. When complete lives are increasingly archived, we may need to step back from that ideal and let our leaders be human.

Categories: privacy, social computing
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