The Public Theater in New York City is home to the Public Forum, which calls itself “the theater of ideas” and is host to various conversations and performances on a broad array of topics. On 1 August 2016, James Graham, Daniel Radcliffe, Jon Ronson, and Sherry Turkle took to the stage to form a panel–moderated by Michael Friedman–on the issue of privacy in today’s digital age.
As a graduate student of Library and Information Science, privacy is something that comes up frequently in my courses. It is imperative for future information professionals to have an understanding of the rights of our patrons, and throughout the one semester I have under my belt I’ve learned a lot about my own rights as a citizen of this country. For example, police are apparently required to have a court order before obtaining access to patron records.
Not all of the lessons learned in my courses are as pleasant as this, however. One case we were exposed to involved a woman whose toddler son was used in an advertisement for Crocs without her permission. Why did the company feel they could do this? The woman had posted the picture of her son wearing the shoes on Instagram, without any privacy settings placed on her account, and used the company’s name in a hashtag.
The conversation Monday night focused around issues such as this, and delved even more deeply into the terrifying realities that accompany this age of sharing and posting every detail of our lives online. Before getting into the horrifying things that companies do with our data, it is worth taking a look at why we feel this need to share so much of our lives in the first place. This is not something that I had given much thought to prior to this discussion because, having grown up with these technologies, it sort of comes as second nature.
Social media sites such as Facebook make it much easier to keep in touch with distant friends and sometimes it can feel as though without these sites we would lose these connections. The reality is, though, that without these sites we would simply be forced to pick up a telephone or make a trip to see them in person; this would only serve to strengthen our connections, not weaken or dissolve them.
Sites like Facebook and Twitter also allow us to give voice to our opinions, so much so that people often mistake it for a diary. It was said by several of the panelists that people, especially teenagers, do not feel as though they are themselves unless they share their thoughts and activities online. According to Sherry, this leads to self-censorship before we even have a chance to work through our feelings on a certain topic. Because we feel this need to share our every thought online, if we have a thought that we think the people of the Internet world will scorn or vilify us for, we will quash that thought immediately. Though it is not something I had noticed before, in retrospect I am absolutely guilty of this. This sort of behavior, this edited thought process, can really have a negative impact on the intellectual and reflective abilities of current and future generations.
Jon brought up the story of Justine Sacco (take a quick moment to Google her if you do not recall her unfortunate downfall, which took place on Twitter). Due to all of the unwanted attention her tweet gave her, Justine was forced to go to a company that buries shameful, viral posts by clogging up the top hits of a search engine with blogs created by that company. Jon says that the top results about Justine became blogs pertaining to her love of cats and ice cream; he says that in order to bury her mistake, Justine had to become bland. Is that not something that we all do in order to avoid being thrust into the same unfortunate spotlight as people like Justine? I know that I personally avoid posting anything on social media, especially the more public forms like Twitter and Instagram, that might be taken out of context or read the wrong way. As a result, my pages are relatively boring. They are not humorous or witty or entertaining; they only represent the part of myself that I have deemed fit to be viewed by the general public, particularly the part of the public that may be hiring me in the near future.
However, one major question that arises is whether what we post online is all that is being seen of us. Daniel said at one point, “I always assumed we’re all under government surveillance.” I have always assumed that as well, but what I had not thought much of is all of the other eyes on our data. Honestly, if the government wants to tap into what citizens are doing in order to more effectively protect the nation from potential threats, then yes, please, by all means do so. It is what Sherry said that concerns me–something as seemingly simple as the iPhone tracking how many steps its user takes in a day can be used against the user. I only recently discovered the iPhone’s capability to do this and thought, “Wow, how convenient, now I don’t have to charge my Up every other day.” According to Sherry, though, this kind of information could be used down the line to deny people certain health or life insurance policies, the assumption being that if a person does not take many steps in a day they are more likely to be in poor health.
This is only one example of many given by the panelists. There are companies harvesting your data, creating a profile of you as you give all these applications permission to access different parts of your phone and your social media accounts. These companies can then sell the data to anyone willing to buy. Daniel brought up a story of a man who paid for information about a woman and used that information to track her down. When he found her, he murdered her. Of course, this is an extreme example, but there is no end to what horrors of all kinds await if this personal data falls into the wrong hands.
James pointed out that people under the age of 14 have 40% less empathy than the previous generation at the same age. People do not know how to communicate in person anymore, not without the presence of some technology, and there is a drastic drop in kids’ ability to read social cues or facial expressions. This fact, combined with the massive amounts of personal information that is available whether we choose for it to be or not, sounds like the beginning of the end for humanity.
James also said that privacy is about being able to choose what it is we share, but that we are losing that choice more and more. I think one of the biggest issues with a digital age is the fact that we do not know who has access to what information. My sister told me she did not want to back up her photos on Google Photos because she did not want the company to have all of her personal snapshots; I questioned whether Apple already has those snapshots since they are stored on an iPhone. There certainly needs to be more transparency when it comes to who has access to what.
It seems that our privacy is the price we must pay to partake in the goods offered us by the digital world. Daniel laughed as he said that not having an email address or a Facebook is a revolutionary act, but he is not wrong. We need our email addresses to access nearly every service offered on the Internet, and a Facebook account to sign into many applications. We are not being permitted to use these features without simultaneously adding to the profile these data mining companies have on us. By constantly adding to this profile, Sherry says we are actually narrowing our own worlds. When I post a review of a book or I view a book’s page on Amazon, I am then overwhelmed by a slew of emails and Facebook ads relating to that book. We are shown what we want to see, what we are used to seeing, rather than that which might make us uncomfortable and grow further as human beings.
Though there are aspects of our privacy we cannot control–things like the step counter on the iPhone or the phone’s location tracker, if we do not know to look for and disable it–there are certainly parts that we do have a handle on. While, as Sherry stated, it can often feel like we are having a private conversation with our screens, we must remain aware of the fact that everything we post is going out into the world, for good or bad. Once it is shared, there is no controlling who gains access to it and what they choose to do with that access.
There is so much more to be said on this topic, and many other good points that were brought up by the panelists, but I think I’ve already rambled on long enough for one blog post. I will leave off with these weighty questions posed by Sherry, which are as disturbing as they are insightful: “What is intimacy without privacy? What is democracy without privacy?”
And one more of my own: What company is going to do what with the information I’m sharing about myself in this blog post??