Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Internet: The Friend that Tells All Your Secrets

“When you’re doing stuff online, you should behave as if you’re doing it in public — because increasingly, it is.”- Jon Kleinberg, professor of computer science at Cornell University

It used to be that as long as you didn’t post any pictures of yourself that you wouldn’t want that creepy guy down the street to see and didn’t post your full name or address on a site then you were generally being safe on the internet. In the past few years, however, the whole ball game has changed when it comes to online privacy and safety.

The internet has impacted privacy in so many ways; some say privacy is long gone for the modern world of technology, others, like Alma Whitten, claim that “privacy is alive and well.” The internet provides more opportunities for people to share information with each other, and possibly inadvertently with the public. If you don’t have your settings right on social networking sites like Facebook or other online accounts you may be at risk to lose your job, be targeted by anyone from Google to people who want to steal your identity or stalkers. Now, people can figure out virtually everything you do online. Google CEO Eric Schmidt has been quoted as saying, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place.” While I think this a stupid response to the issue of internet privacy, he does have a point: if you don’t want people to know what you’re doing, then you probably shouldn’t do it on the internet because as we’ve learned from various studies you only need a little crumb of information to be able follow the rest to you and your life. One such study was done by Alessandro Acquisti and Ralph Gross who “reported that they could accurately predict the full, nine-digit Social Security numbers for 8.5 percent of the people born in the United States between 1989 and 2003 — nearly five million individuals” as Steve Lohr explained in his article How Privacy Vanishes Online.

Even your simple online habits can put you in situations that you may not like. As Sarah Perez explained in her article, 3 Facebook Settings Facebook Users Should Check Now, many people may think they are being safe and protecting their privacy online but even posting something like your birthday or relationship status or even visiting a store’s website can give advertisers and criminals enough info to target you. Even with all the tips Perez provides to Facebook users, even she admits, “they're by no means the only privacy settings worth a look.” Even the Federal Trade Commission worries that rules “to protect privacy have not kept up with technology” says Lohr. He goes on to explain that “…an individual’s actions, researchers say, are rarely enough to protect privacy in the interconnected world of the Internet…you may not disclose personal information, but your online friends and colleagues may do it for you, referring to your school or employer, gender, location and interests. Patterns of social communication, researchers say, are revealing.”

Companies have taken advantage of the questionable restrictions/ rules provided by governments and the lack of knowledge that most users have. They keep up with all our information to sell more to us, to advertise to us and to entice us into anything they can on the web. Email companies sell your email address to other companies all the time; they call them “partners,” so that these partners can target you with ads and things and both parties profit. They usually let you know this by saying something like this: “Sometimes we offer your email to our partner companies is this okay?” Sounds innocent enough right? I mean why wouldn’t my email provider protect me? After all these are my personal emails and I trust my email so why shouldn’t I trust their friends? Yeah, right. At first I thought it was some really cool coincidence that the ads on my Facebook page always seemed so catered to me, now I just feel dumb. Facebook monitors what you write and puts ads on the side of your page that correspond to things that you talk about on your page or even groups or fan pages that you join.

As long as you use your name, or a name they know you go by, future employers can find out pretty much all they want about you too. You might not even get called for an interview before HR knows all about your crazy college days. If you’ve ever commented in a forum, been in or the topic of an online article, or have a social networking site, employers will most likely look for it. Even if you’ve deleted your Myspace page, employers still might be able to see that picture that you posted of you underage drinking with your buddies and took down a day later out of fear your mom would see it—you’ve seen that commercial, pictures never leave the internet. You probably have next to no control over a Google search about yourself, even if you set everything you do to private.

(Though this is about online sexual exploitation, you can see where it still applies.)

As I mentioned before, there is little one person can do to protect themselves from all the risks. Your best bet though is to just pay attention to “the fine print”- anything that sounds fishy, anything that asks for more information, just make sure you know who your information is going to be seen by.

Another aspect of the privacy issue is brought up in Colleen Barry’s Article, Italian Judge says Profit Behind Google Verdict. The conflict in the article was that a very offensive video was posted on YouTube (now owned by Google) showing an autistic young man being taunted and beaten by peers (the ones that posted the video) and YouTube/Google not only allowed it to be posted but also allegedly sought to gain a profit from it “by selling advertising on the site where the footage was posted.”

“Google argued that it was unaware of the offensive material and acted swiftly to remove it after being notified by authorities.” I have a few issues with this. That video topped “Google Italy's ‘most entertaining’ video list,” I find it hard to believe that they don’t monitor what is being most watched so that they can sell that prime advertising space (it obviously has lots of viewers) to companies that will pay them lots of money to let them and was it just sheer coincidence that advertising did pop up there alongside this most entertaining (perhaps most watched) video? While I believe their motives are highly suspect and that the fact that it even happened was ridiculous … I hate to say that, legally, I don’t think Google is responsible. Maybe Google saw the video, saw an opportunity and ignored it, maybe they have a system in place that automatically picks where, what and when to advertise based on certain conditions, who knows? It almost doesn’t matter. Like the Google reps said, the internet was built on the principle of free speech, what if Google too struggled with whether it was legally their right to take down those boys’ video? And with millions of random, outrageous, offensive and radical videos being uploaded to the site every minute one company can’t be expected to view and okay (who’s standards would they even use?) let alone potentially have a legal dispute with every person that posted one.

A happy medium of a both free and protected internet may not even be possible. It sounds depressing but that’s precisely why we as a society have to figure something out to develop the kind of internet we can all be okay with.

I think growing up with this type of shaky privacy people will have the right level of trust and distrust when interacting on the internet. A lot of people are already aware of the risks that come with going on the internet whether you’re sharing information or not. I’m still young (now I don’t even want to say my age lol) and I know, my own personal experience has been that I largely am weary of the internet and tend to feel like it’s not as much my friend as it is that girl at school that acts nice to my face but is just waiting to spread a rumor about me. However, I think that life now revolves so much around the internet that it would be really difficult to try to avoid it so we are stuck just trying to make sure we’re being careful.

These privacy issues do relate to The Long Tail and democracy and, ironically, in a good way. The positive, and democratizing, thing about the lack of privacy on the internet may in fact be the lack of privacy on the internet. By giving everyone equal opportunity to access information on the internet, corporations, politicians, public figures, etc. can more easily be found out and held accountable by average citizens. For example, because a young exec decided to brag about his acts involving the company in a personal email to a friend, huge allegations have been brought up against investment firm Goldman Sachs (click here for article). Another example would be the Salahi’s. You remember? The White House party crashers who were under fire for weeks after people (and officials) found the pictures they posted on their Facebook pages of their wild party crashing night. Maybe a little lack of personal privacy may actually aid in providing a somewhat safer society for all of us. Okay, so the situation isn’t ideal, but it’s one we have to work with until we create something better.

While I felt that Alma Whitten was a little bias in her article, she did have one good point when she said, “But we [Google] can't and shouldn't do it alone. Ensuring real control in our ever-changing world is one of the most important challenges our society faces. Together, we must find new and better ways to guarantee privacy today and for the future.”

"There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment... It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time.

But at any rate they could plug into your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live - did live, from habit that became instinct - in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and except in darkness, every movement scrutinized." - George Orwell, 1984

1 comment:

  1. It is interesting to see where these privacy concerns will take society. With the internet being such an important part of so many people's lives this issues has to be resolved! I can see a divide in generations. Our generations and the ones before us are experiencing a violation of privacy and are not comfortable with the changes that are being made with the internet. The next generations will know nothing different and the everyday invasion of privacy won't phase them.