Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Completely Blackmail: The Other Foot Dropping

This was inspired by the ending of Matt Conroy's paper.

Over the course of my return to North Carolina, I have already spoken to many of my former students. Education and career have been the perennial serious topics, and a strange exchange keeps recurring.

"Joe, do you think you'll run for office here?"

"Yes, in ten or twenty years, I think that is what I would really like to do. Would you ever be interested in doing that?"

"That's great, but no, not me. I wouldn't want to do that myself."

"Why is that?"

"Oh, I wouldn't want everything I've said and done exposed."

"You're a teenager. What could you possibly -"

"I'm sure people have screenshots."

Gossiping is an activity as old as humanity, but teenagers today gossip in a world full of screenshots. Rapper Yo Gotti explains the dynamic succintly: "Don't you hate when you get screenshotted? (petty) Bitch that DM (direct message) wasn't for everybody I love the ’Gram, I love the ’Gram I'm addicted to it, I know I am"

When conversations take place primarily via text and image and screenshotting is as simple as pushing two buttons simultaneously, gossip is made more dangerous in two ways. First, it is harder to extinguish, as we no longer need rely on human memory of events to show what occurred. Second, it is easier to bypass individual's innate faculty of skepticism. Primates believe what they see and imagine what they hear. When the text conversation is visually displayed in legitimate appearance, rather than merely recounted, the natural response of people is to assume it occurred, as represented, verbatim. Compared to students five or ten years ago, the level of social trust seems much lower because conversations are so easy to relay to third parties, who can relay them onwards and onwards with no direct loss of information. A paradox of the internet's evolution is that what once allowed us to have great anonymity in expressing our innermost desires now makes it more difficult to have any secrecy when expressing those desires to our friends.

Forgetting the Right to be Forgotten

Viktor Mayer-Schönberger conceived of this problem when he wrote "Forgetting in the Digital Age", but his solutions are not realistic for several reasons. The Right to be Forgotten is an anemic safeguard, as while it makes information difficult to find via Google, it does nothing to remove the information from any party who may have stored it - not The Man In The Middle, not another party to the conversation, not anyone who received a screenshot. And, in the case of candidates for public office, that information is likely to resurface at the worst possible time and not long before. Viktor's more extreme idea of expiring data is not likely to be popular with numerous factions. Historians and transparency watchdogs will be concerned about data being lost to the void. Large corporations will worry about business implications. Operating system manufacturers will worry about engineering requirements and user complaints. The Free Software Movement and users themselves will be angry about not having control over their data. Like most Germans of a philosophical bent, he does an excellent job critiquing the problems of modernity and a poor job of constructing an alternative.

I do not think an absolute solution is possible. Recording, remembering, and retransmitting shall be much easier forevermore, with positive and negative implications. I do not pity the police officers or the racists, but many of us could be made out to be bigots or otherwise horrible people using a 200-400 word except from our entire life history. One part of the equation is teaching young people to use better tools, sit down before composing an electronic message that could persist for all posterity, and perhaps even help our social reality better grasp the range of emotions and statements that encompass any human life.

But even once you're out, you're not quite out. A close friend of mine dropped out of graduate school to become an exotic dancer, and then a C-list adult film star. The pay and recognition is more than most humanities Ph.ds receive. This individual deleted all their old social media, attempting to purge the online existence of the old identity so it could never be connected to the new public persona. However, when I download my Facebook archive, I happened to come across series of messages exchanged, and while the account is gone, it is possible to intuit from the content of the received messages, retained in my data, exactly who this person was. And even if Facebook ever decides or is forced to provide more robust data-deleting tools, now I have a scrape, the FBI and the NSA have a scrape, Facebook itself has a scrape, and unknown third parties have a scrape.

What The Fuck Does He Mean By KGB?

But, aside from the general implications for each individual's bilateral exchanges persisting indefinitely, there is the issue of the political power of the entity holding all the exchanges. Facebook is politically powerful now, due to their money, due to placing a thumb on the scale in the spread of the news, and due to being a key vehicle for political data-mining and advertising. But, right now, Facebook owns platforms, of which 80% of American teenagers use at least one regularly. The potential to inadvertently leak compromising information about most of the U.S. Senate before the election would lead to a degree of control over the legislative body even greater than that of the railroads or Standard Oil. If Evan Spiegel is ever convinced to sell Snapchat, the danger of concentrated power becomes even more pronounced. Additionally, aside from the corporation itself, the next J. Edgar Hoover will be far more capable than the last if he is not paralyzed from the sheer amount of voyeurism available.

I can see why people think we lost. My file's probably dirty enough already. A lawyer told me last Tuesday, "Us old guys know how to pick up the phone. Young people, they like to text and email. That always leaves us a big mess to sort through." But still, 18 and maybe even 28 is young enough that almost anything can be explained away as youthful indiscretion. But still, the clock only stops ticking once you stop it.


The tort of public disclosure of private facts and the crime of blackmail may relate to this in some way, but I haven't properly figured it out yet. I think maybe the solution to why blackmail is illegal - two actions legal in and of themselves - may hold a secret that justifies legally limiting some of the dangers talked about here.

-- JoeBruner - 11 Jun 2018



Webs Webs

r1 - 11 Jun 2018 - 12:02:53 - JoeBruner
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