Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Years ago, when Facebook was still only accessible to students with registered .edu email addresses, I sat in a lecture with my other high school seniors for a discussion on internet privacy. The speaker, whose public speaking background was primarily with sexual assault and personal privacy among college students, spoke that day about how to keep yourself safe in the digital era. The two major themes that day were

a. Don't put any personal works on MySpace? , because the terms and conditions granted the owners of the site – at that point, it had recently been acquired by none other than Mr. Murdoch's News Corp – unlimited distribution and use of any materials placed on a MySpace? page. The interpretation offered to us as that time: if you put a picture or original song on your MySpace? page, News Corp effectively owns it.

b. Deletion of something from the Internet does not eliminate it. Pages that have been taken down do not disappear altogether. Rather, a smart Internet user changes a page or post, rather than deletes it, so that cache services will see the revision. Otherwise, the deleted version exists in its finality in perpetuity.

This discussion was in 2006. In the great scheme of things, less than 7 years passing is not a great period of time. But the fact is, at that moment, this was most advance advice offered to graduating high school seniors on how to stay safe in cyberspace.

Seven Years Later:

Not a lot of space need be spent on these two past thoughts unto themselves. MySpace? is no longer a particularly popular vehicle for communication or media, having been completely overrun by Zuckerberg's behemoth. And as for the replacement rather than removal theory, a quick trip to the WaybackMachine? can allow to see “snapshots” of webpages from nearly any week since the site's launch.

This is all means by which to say that privacy on the internet is by no means a static concept. Rather, which each development, each technological advancement that supposedly brings the world “closer together” by some happenstance, more of our lives and individualities are being exposed to the circuitry of the internet – and, more importantly, those who control it or who have access to, or authority over, them – the more that such informational sessions for graduating high schooler become outdated moments after they are received.

Moving Forward:

Reflective of this new modernity, what can the average citizen do? How can we as community respond – if we want to – to this growing personal-informational market? To use myself as an example, I do not use Gmail, but it is entirely for reasons pertaining to my general dislike of the functionality rather than my knowledge in the lack of security it offers. I do, however, use Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare, and others like them. More over, I use these products masquerading as “services” to near excess. I brag about being told, after they reached 10 million users, that I was one of the first 10,000 Foursquare users. To some extent, it makes me a trendsetter, an original traveler. However, what that product does is tell my friends, my acquaintances, and some strangers exactly where I am at any given moment. I choose to reveal this information en masse, because there is something fun about it. I know that if someone wanted to rob me, or arrest me, or kill me, it would be incredibly easy to find me, a fact I personally choose to exacerbate. But I do it anyway.

To that effect, I choose to put personal details and photographs in large numbers on Facebook. I use it as a primary communication portal for too many contacts. I acknowledge the utter lack of security it offers me, or those with whom I am in contact. But again, it's fun, and I do it anyway. Like a well-educated, or perhaps just rationalizing, drug user, I know that my behavior is wrong, but I'm choosing to hurt myself, so, so be it. Even more to that point, my thinking is largely along the lines of: I have nothing to hide. I'm not someone the government would want to question for my beliefs. So, I'm not in jeopardy.

But as we all know in this class, such rationalizing is utterly incorrect. It is flawed from the beginning to the conclusion. I know this, but choose to do it anyway. To that effect, I can only contract my social-libertarian nature and say that, because we as addicts cannot protect ourselves, we must be protected.


The idea of government 'protecting' its citizens from self-harm is something I am opposed to wholeheartedly. Moreover, as has been discussed above, the willingness of users to allow a service such as Facebook access to such personal information is by choice, as even a knowledgable user such as myself is aware of Facebook's policies, but does not care enough to stop using the service. This choice is my protected freedom, no matter how foolish it may be.

As such, it would seem the only solution to this dilemma would be the classic American solution to most ails: free-market capitalism. In a hypothetical, Professor Moglen offered anyone in his class $100 in exchange for the right to read their emails in perpetuity, an offer nobody accepted. An enterprising developer should see this as a strategy for their own service. The creation of new, pro-privacy services to compete with Facebook is made difficult already by the expanse of Facebook's empire, and the barrier to entry being that everyone already has accounts. But by stressing the privacy issue, the dichotomy of privacy protection and intrusion, a competing service has an automatic advantage, one which the email hypothetical showed cannot be bought easily. Create the distinction not just with features, as companies like GooglePlus? have tried, but with an unmistakeable demarcation with regard to privacy. Surely, the fact that nobody accepted the $100 offer shows that the market exists for such a product to thrive.


Webs Webs

r4 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:44:39 - IanSullivan
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