“Big Brother has nothing on growing up as a minister’s daughter in a small town.”
Shava Nerad, Development Director / former Executive Director of the Tor Project, offered that trenchant observation in the context of a panel on privacy held at the MIT Museum earlier this month,”Machines with spies & texting eyes: The shifting lines of public/private.” As she noted, she’s been writing provocative things on the Internet since 1982 so this isn’t exactly out of character.
Jonathan Zittrain, co-founder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, moderated the panel. Judith Donath (Director of the Sociable Media Group), Aaron Swartz (Founder of watchdog.net and reddit.com) and Benjamin Waber, (Researcher, Human Dynamics Group at the MIT Media Lab) joined Nerad behind the table.
The event put special focus on the MIT Media Lab‘s Sociable Media Group’s exhibition, “Connections.” When asked about the purpose of the exhibit, Donath said that “We wanted people to step back and think about privacy. One mundane step after another has brought us to a deeply transformed world.”
Shava noted that “mischaracterizations of your identity are more likely to result than the real thing at the exhibit.” That result is “an artifact of scraping,” where data is pulled from many pools online without context or interpolation.
In general, the exhibit is meant to pull into focus Donath’s central question: “What is the cost we have to pay in terms of privacy to cement society together?”
You can take a virtual tour of the museum (from 2008) below:
Using the dry wit that makes his public appearances so enjoyable, Zittrain kicked off the panel with an explication of prurient. As he noted, prurient is a “funny word.” It refers to something that attracts you and then a moment later disgusts you. It’s wholly applicable and useful to our relationship with privacy in our changing world, as lifestreaming, Twitter, Facebook and mobile technology rapidly intermingle our public and private selves.
As Norath noted, “we’re all leaving trails of data…email, every time we comment, when we go through FastLane, when we go shopping. Some we’re aware of, some we’re not. There’s a growing shadow behind us.”
The privacy panel recognized that the data trails left by teens online may be particularly meaningful for future employment or educational opportunities. Is acting out on Facebook a way of showing off imperviousness?
Nerad noted just how how persistent data is. In reply, @zittrain suggested declaring “reputational bankruptcy” at 18. Hilarity ensued. Shava suggested extending the age to 25.
Regardless, a “data shadow” is a useful metaphor for these data trails that accompany our online activity, especially when combined with the work of the Sunlight Foundation and Watchdog.net, the “good government site with teeth” project started by Swartz. It’s safe to say that we’re all watching each other now. Adding to the lighthearted but thoughtful tone of the discussion, @aaronsw recalled the day @EFF‘s Kevin Bankston was caught smoking by Google Street View.
Benjamin Waber noted that with Bluetooth scans on cellphones you might be able to accurately track who might be infected by a disease. As Zittrain quipped on one case, referring to swine flu, you could even epidemiologically trace it back to “Pig Zero.”
Waber makes the comparison to the membership cards offered by Shaws that enable consumers to receive discounts in return for registering. “If we owned our Bluetooth data, could we sell it? You get something for your data, for giving up your purchasing patterns. If your cellphone distributed certain information, would you be willing to trade it?”
The panel took note of the cultural differences between Japan and the U.S. with regards to @Google Street View. Protections around privacy and awareness of the impact of mobile video on it are greater there, perhaps by virtue of the technological edge that exists with Japanese society. Does greater tech penetration result in greater awareness of privacy issues? An Aussie in the audience notes that this privacy discussion appeared to be predicated by being held in the U.S. “When you’re a net importer of culture, you’re used to skirting around things.”
In Waber’s case, certainly, one would have to note that the privacy discussion is both academic and our in the real world. He passed around the “sociometer” that Waber and others are using to conduct research with at the Media Lab. Zittrain quipped that it “reminds me of an alithiometer” — a reference to Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” epic fantasy trilogy. This geek guffawed. To be fair, in many ways, this device is downright magical, at least when its simple form factor is compared to its function. A sociometer is a wearable sensor package for measuring face-to-face interactions between people.
Afterwards, I was lucky enough to go out for Chinese with the panelists , where@zittrain further moderated a “roundtable” on the potential for malicious use of@Amazon‘s Mechanical Turk. @aaronsw @bwaber and @zephyrteachout and others contributed to a vigorous discussion of Google’s role in privacy, dominance of search and the role of citizens and law in encouraging more transparent government and corporate practices.
There’s more on electronic privacy and online governance at the Complexity and Social Networks Blog at Harvard and some thoughtful comments on the event page on Facebook.
Readers interested in privacy may also find WeLiveInPublicTheMovie.com of interest.