Friday, July 23, 2010

The google gossip trade

Photo by Sklathill
The NYT has a fantastic article in this weekend's magazine on something I have been stamping my feet about for years. It is about how the permanence of our digital lives (a lack of ephemerality) is significantly affecting our physical day-to-day lives, often in adverse ways.  (I unfortunately don't have the time to summarize the article - please go read it, it's very well written.)

Our world has not only become a panopticon, but it is a permanent, indexed, fully searchable one. This is not merely your employer seeing a photo of you being goofy at a party, this is a permanent record of your daily existence of which you increasingly have absolutely no control over.

The right to anonymity and ephemerality of action is something we take for granted when acting in the physical world. The problem is that the digital world does not in any way reflect these assumptions. Not only is everything you do online often fully archived and linkable to you, but with the advent of social media everything other people post about you is too.

There are a ton of papers in the literature about how online activities we believe to be anonymous are not at all. Seemingly innocuous and anonymous net activity can reveal one's search queries, social security number, phone number, sexual orientation, political views, travel plans, oh, and, one's real identity when they thought they were anonymous. I think I meet a new researcher mining Twitter for gold just about every other day. The fact is, computer scientists are clever folks, and coming up with these kinds of algorithms is quite easy.  And they're the good guys/gals.

Being a private person, I find these papers terrifying. But when I talk to many people about it, they say, "I don't care. I have nothing to hide." This is a selfish and, frankly, privileged attitude to have. For people living in countries with authoritarian governments, anonymity is often the only path to freedom. Imagine the Underground Railroad or hidden Jews during the Holocaust being successful with 24/7 video surveillance, with automatic face tagging being posted to live feeds on Facebook. Or more recently, imagine someone using these techniques to out Iranian green party members. They'd be killed. And I don't think the counter-argument holds; I doubt such a permanent panopticon will suddenly engender good behavior.

One of the best things about our freedom as human beings is that other people quickly forget our stupid, embarrassing moments. People don't always know who we are everywhere we go. We can take many risks freely. But, increasingly, neither our technology nor our legislation is supporting us in this. And that, in my opinion, is very dangerous indeed.


  1. Nice post. At the end, you hit on a point that I find particularly important: legislation is lagging behind technology. We have all these brand new ways to invade people's privacy at our fingertips, and not many laws to try to discourage them from doing so, or at least punish them once they do it.

  2. Thanks, irongrrl. I agree - the law seriously needs to get its act together. I am happy to see lots of lawyer types starting to publish in some of these areas, so it gives me some hope.