Law in Contemporary Society

Privacy in the Digital Age

-- By LisaXia - 05 Jun 2016

In my last essay, I began to explore the question of why I should care about privacy rights. I asked why the right to privacy felt, to me, inconsequential. I did not feel uncomfortable with the fact that my online profiles could be exploited to reveal my personal preferences, search history, or even how I chose to interact with people and content. I knew that companies were selling my personal information to other companies that wanted to target their products at me, however, I felt like targeting Internet users with personalized ads seemed so natural. In retrospect, I think I understand why I felt that way.

The fact of the matter is: I grew up with the Internet. As a fourth grader, I was already blogging about my personal life. Initially, I only had a blog that I shared with my friends, but later, in high school, I began writing in a “private” blog as well – that is, a blog that I didn’t share with any of my friends, but that anyone on the Internet could view. I treated this blog more like a personal diary, where I would often write about things that were on my mind that I didn’t necessarily want to share with my friends or family. It wasn’t that I didn’t want anyone to see it – it was more that I didn’t want the blog to be traced back to me by the people that knew me. The fact that some hypothetical being “somewhere out there” could arguably find out that the blog belonged to me didn’t matter to me – after all, I was just posting about trivial high school things. As silly as it sounds, the Internet almost felt like it was a friend to me. It was always there when I needed it; it provided me with endless hours of entertainment; it helped me with my homework, and I trusted it with all of my thoughts and teenage musings. I guess, in a way, I think the Internet always felt like a safe haven to me. Even after I stopped blogging about my life, I continued to feel that “trust” with the new sites I was beginning to use.

Moreover, when most social networking sites launched, ads were not as personalized and were usually confined to advertising on the tops or sides of pages. Thus, as time passed and these social networking sites began to advertise more specifically and in less obvious places, they were able to evolve under its users’ noses in a slow enough pace that many users did not see the change. The gradual progression of the native and programmatic advertising and the mere fact that many people were using these sites from a young age led many users to turn away from caring about digital privacy. However, now, more and more, I am finally beginning to see the perversity of our digital lifestyles.

After the semester ended, I read Prof. Harcourt’s book, Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age. While reading the book, I constantly felt appalled at the amount of consumerism, narcissism, and puppetry that no doubt surrounds the “expository society” today. The government and companies alike benefit from the digital age since most consumers are basically mindless sheep who succumb to their desires time and time again.

Prof. Harcourt said in his book: “There is hardly any need for illicit or surreptitious searches, and there is little need to compel, to pressure, to strong-arm, or to intimidate, because so many of us are giving all our most intimate information and whereabouts so willingly and passionately – so voluntarily.” The revelation that so many people are involuntarily being surveilled either in prison or with ankle bracelets while others voluntarily give up their information for the sake of convenience or vanity does not sit well. I realized the “affects my life right now test” is definitely NOT a good test. To not care about something just because it doesn’t seem like it’s influencing our life indicates a selfish lack of desire to be aware of your surroundings or to be able to recognize real problems that may not affect you just because of your class or demographic. Online surveillance may not seem to affect our [read: people in a certain income or racial group] life because we may be ‘privileged’ in some way. We are not in danger of the police creating fake social media accounts to try to find out more information about us. We don’t have to worry that we’ll be targeted because we have not acted out. We are of the conforming society, and by being a conformist, the government knows that they do not need to worry about us.

I don’t want to be influenced by the Internet and social media anymore. I don’t want to be told to want a shiny, new product that seamlessly integrates the analog life with the digital life. I don’t want my Fitbit to tell me that my steps don’t count unless it’s recorded by my fitness tracker. I don’t want a thermostat that knows my life and my schedule. I don’t want to have to verify my identity on Coursera by typing a phrase multiple times so that Coursera can learn my “unique typing patterns” so that they can “confirm my identity throughout the course” to make sure I’m not cheating. I want to be in control of my personal information – how much of it I want to give out and to whom. Harcourt says: “The line between governance, commerce, surveillance, and private life is evaporating.” And it’s true. As governance, commerce, and surveillance merge into one, the government and various corporations are working together to watch and enforce a way of life. They monitor and punish those who step out of the norm, and reward those who conform with more objects of desire and more words of affirmation, keeping the population blinded and subdued. Digital privacy IS important and hopefully soon, more people will begin to realize it.

I'm glad that Bernard's book has had such an effect. You are precisely the reader he is trying to reach that way, and it's very good news that his way works.

If you have decided something that is in the end about the "affects you now" standard, anyway, then all you want is to make a series of technology choices that will preserve your personal autonomy, the aspect of privacy that comes from having your secrecy and anonymity protected, instead of silently invaded and reduced to nothing. You can use free software and the right hardware to get yourself out of the system, and keep those you care about out too.

If, however, the standard is no longer the effect on you, but the ecological effect on society, then you need to learn to do more than protect yourself: this should become part of your practice. We should work together, because this is part of what I train lawyers to do.

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r5 - 16 Jun 2016 - 08:11:32 - EbenMoglen
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