Juncture, United States — April 2, 2012 2:51 pm

Informational Privacy: From Panem to the Present

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In the recently released film The Hunger Games, the government, controlled by “The Capitol,” uses intimidation and constant surveillance to prevent rebellion against the dystopian order of the country Panem. Starving and impoverished citizens live in perpetual fear that the “Peacekeepers” (think Mussolini’s Black Shirts) will execute them for hunting game or speaking out against the government. The government “knows” what the citizens are doing, and it stifles any trace of dissent without a second thought. Anonymity simply does not exist in this society, and this preserves “stability,” albeit at a hefty cost.

Now meet Daniel Brady. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on June 19, 1992, he graduated last year from Fulton High School and now studies engineering at Stanford (although he was admitted to Harvard on March 30, 2011). His hobbies include playing table tennis and cheering on the Tennessee Titans. His favorite television shows are South Park and House, and his favorite movies are Avatar and Inception. He enjoys listening to One Republic and Coldplay, and he is fluent in German and Mandarin. He recently attended the Key Society Convention in Woodland, Calif., and this past weekend, he walked in the March for Dimes. On Thursday, he will be at Stanford’s Toyon Hall eating Ramen noodles with his close friends.

I have never met Daniel; in fact, I did not even know he existed before I began writing this article. Yet, I would argue that it’s likely I know more about him than some of his high school peers do. Daniel’s name and interests have been changed to protect his identity, but he is a real person. The only connection I share with him is a single mutual friend on Facebook.

The Common Thread

While the notion of living in a society like Panem seems absurd, there is a striking, unnerving similarity between our world and the frightening world of The Hunger Games: a lack of privacy. Increasingly, we willingly surrender tremendous amounts of information via Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites, but rarely consider where this data may end up. If we value privacy in our lives, we must be cognizant of what we disclose via social media, because the instant we click “submit” or “post,” we lose control of where it goes.

The connections of the Internet, visualized.

In the time that it takes you to read this sentence, Facebook users will post over 85,000 comments and 15,000 statuses. And the majority of those statuses will include the location of the user (which is, incidentally, the default setting, not an opt-in). Twitter users average 4.42 tweets per day—at work, while eating, and even while relieving themselves. And the website Foursquare allows users to “check-in” at various restaurants, hotels, and other venues to gain points and “badges.” The average person posts her location three to four times daily.

And then there’s Google. Begin typing “movies” into the search bar and it auto-fills “movies in Boston.” Hit “search” and movie showings at theaters near you instantaneously fill your screen. Visit any website and you will likely have the option to “+1” (or “Like”) the page or article, sending that information directly back to your profile for others to view. Targeted advertisement has also become more and more prevalent in recent years (Google calls it “personalized ads”). It involves computers automatically scanning users’ messages and matching potential clients with businesses, and these personalized ads even appear on external sites that use Google Ads as a source of revenue.

If you happen to use Gmail, you can see who Google thinks you are. Apparently, I am a 24-to-35-year-old male who enjoys movies, shopping, and travel. Ok, so perhaps the algorithm could be improved (I’m 19 and avoid shopping whenever possible), but the fact remains: directly and indirectly, we knowingly and willingly provide enormous amounts of data through our use of search engines and social media. The question is: who has access to this information?

Who Can Access Our Data, and When?

On April 14, 2010, the Library of Congress announced it would be archiving all public tweets from the time of Twitter’s inception through the present. The move was motivated by the hope that the database would provide “evidence about how technology-based social networks form and evolve” and allow sociologists to document social trends over time. Only public data will be made available to the LOC, but I would bet many of Twitter’s 300 million users don’t monitor their privacy settings (which allow for posts to be set to private) and did not expect that their tweets would be permanently archived. And while access to the archive will be restricted to “known researchers,” the very existence of the collection calls into question the extent to which government officials will be able to use the data. For instance, would judges have access to the database if it could potentially convict a criminal in court?

If you believe that the answer couldn’t possibly be yes, consider this: just weeks ago, the FBI announced it was seeking input as it begins development of a web alert program that would retrieve information from social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter, and blogs that could be used to identify threats. The report details that the application must be able to “rapidly assemble critical open source information and intelligence” and “quickly vet, identify, and geo-locate breaking events, incidents and emerging threats.”

The program raises major concerns about the delicate balance between security and privacy. The Fourth Amendment protects citizens from “unreasonable searches and seizures,” and this program has the potential to threaten that right. Former FBI agent Mike German is apprehensive about the application, asserting that the United States should ”protect the freedom to speak your mind, to criticize government policies without fear that the government will take it the wrong way and start treating you as if you’re a threat”. Sound familiar? Perhaps our society resembles Panem more than we thought.

Where Do We Go from Here?

If this all sounds a bit alarmist, don’t fret. We are far from the day when the government possesses all our information and uses it to control and subdue us. Yet we have a responsibility to ourselves to be aware of what we post for the world to see, because those long forgotten statuses of anger, stupidity, or simple naivety aren’t gone, and it’s anyone’s guess as to where they could end up. We must remain conscientious that as Facebook’s timeline profile has demonstrated, social networking sites retain our information long after we can recall posting it, and it is not unthinkable that the information we unsuspectingly provide today could be used for less innocent purposes tomorrow. From something as insignificant as a scowling look from a friend to something as paramount as a criminal prosecution, the repercussions of what we share through social media follow us long after we logoff.

 

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

  • Eric Hendey

    Fascinating. Another related issue is the way our information is being used for targeted marketing.

  • Anonymous

    I think you could have done a better job drawing the distinction between the lack of privacy and the use of that lack.  To me, it seems like the danger arises not from the fact that my Twitter isn’t private, but that people could use my tweets for some nefarious purpose.  Keep in mind that it’s through a lack of privacy that we’ve discovered important information about those in power, namely our elected officials (Anthony Weiner), and I’d argue we’re not worse off for having made those discoveries.  If we knew what was going on behind the closed doors of the Capitol or of Wall Street, I think we’d benefit from that information by making different decisions about who we elect or who we invest in.  Ultimately, I find a world without secrets to be a world much better off: WikiLeaks wouldn’t make a difference if information about terrorist operations were open source.  I know we can’t realistically reach that point, that everyone will always have some secrets, I just felt that there’s a stricter divide between having public information and abusing public information.  ”The Capitol” is an abuser, why can’t we be better users?

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