My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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NSA spying on digital publics

Over 40 people sent me a link to the New Scientist article: Pentagon sets its sights on social networking websites. First, thank you. Second, ::sigh:: I wish that i could say that i’m shocked, but i’m not. Still, i want to address it.

Those of you who knew my work at MIT knew that i was obsessed with the socio-structural information one could derive from email correspondences. Jeff Potter and i put together Social Network Fragments to visually convey how much information was available through just a single person’s email archives. If you’ve ever CCed anyone, you’ve told everyone on that list meaningful information about your connections. Individual archives hold meaningful data about dozens of people’s social networks. To show this, we put our visualization up at a gallery in New York to make a statement about the privacy implications. Of course, one person’s data is nothing compared to the data that AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo! have. We couldn’t find anyone who had never sent or received an email from each of those companies. I’d guess that each could generate a pretty decent model of the entire nation’s social network.

Part of what makes email networks so powerful is the redundancy. It’s not just the one email you received from kiddiepr0n@aol.com or the fact that you have this in your addressbook, but the fact that you have an ongoing dialogue. Repetitive CC patterns are also super informative. What emerges is pretty fascinating – you can see who operates as bridges and start to get a sense for different functioning clusters and the power of structural holes. Spam is blatantly apparent, but you can also find breakups and love affairs without even getting into content analysis.

The government asked us to engage with them to help them track terrorists; we refused. But, given where we presented this work and who was in the audience, i can’t pretend as though this work didn’t help them think of ways to make sense of communication pattern networks and this has often haunted me. I’m all in favor of tracking down malicious individuals, but, as we’ve seen with the AT&T case, the government is happy to step all over individual privacy in the process. I understand why network researchers want to work for government agencies: infinite funding, computation power and the ability to access massive data sets. Still, i could not do it, as intriguing as the work is.

While our work was fascinating, in order for the big questions to be asked, you’d need to get one of the major three email providers to turn over their data. My hope was that this would never happen, but i have to say, i never thought a telco would sleep with the NSA. The fact of the matter is that the data that the NSA has because of AT&T is far far far more powerful than what they can derive from MySpace or other social networks. Why? It is behavior data, not articulated data. I will come back to that in a moment. But think for a moment… even if you don’t subscribe to AT&T, do you know who your friends subscribe to? All of their data is included which means your conversations with them are too. Thus, even if you’re like me and are boycotting AT&T, you’re still in the system. We all are.

So behavioral and articulated… we’ve talked about this before, but there’s a huge difference between saying you’re friends with someone and actually being friends with them. Of course, this probably doesn’t matter in a McCarthy era where any thread that connects you to a Communist is good enough. Friends on MySpace are equivalent to all the other familiar strangers you interact with every day – shopkeepers, cabbies, waiters, etc. If the government is really trying to gather information, they cannot be stupid enough to think that your list of 9000 friends is meaningful, but people have been accused of patronizing the wrong stores before. Of course, the value in the bazillion friends is that it provides starting information to find network clusters. In other words, it’s one thing if you’re friends with Lucky, but it’s another if all of your friends are also friends with Lucky. What is most interesting though is if all of your friends are friends with Lucky and you aren’t… experience has shown me that you and Lucky were once good friends/lovers and are now not on the best of terms.

There is also a lot of other public data in MySpace that is meaningful and i’ve been using this for analysis purposes. Top 8s are quite significant… even more so when they change. Combined with the Top 8s of those people (etc.), you can start to get a really meaningful picture of cliques. Comments are meaningful (except for the “Thanks for the add” ones) but picture comments are even more meaningful and repeat comments from the same person are the most meaningful. By complementing friends lists, this material provides a layer of behavioral data on top of the articulated data.

All this aside, what bothers me the most about this is the fact that the government thinks this is OK just because it’s possible to do. Some people will immediately argue that of course they should, it’s public data! Whenever you leave your home, someone could track your movements, marking every time you enter and leave different buildings, marking what you’re wearing and who you’re speaking with in public, etc. People hire PIs to do precisely this (often when they assume our partners are cheating). No one would be cool with a government snoop sitting on every street corner marking the public paths of every citizen just because they could. Luckily, the overhead of this is so outrageous that we only do it when we are really concerned about a particular individual. Networked technologies not only make this easier, but they also make the snoop invisible. Problematically, people don’t sweat the invasion so much because they can’t see it.

An argument that people make is that you should have nothing to fear if you’ve done nothing wrong. This is sooooo irritating. First, this is only true if you are interested in upholding hegemonic cultural norms. The adorable gay couple next door are doing nothing wrong in my eyes, but their kissing is all sorts of problematic to a government that wants to ban their right to love each other. Aside from queer life, think about all of the decisions you made that aren’t necessarily “normal” even if many of us live a pretty privileged life. Second, there’s a difference between illegal and not exactly the best impression. I want the ability to pick my nose when i don’t think anyone’s looking and i don’t want a camera to capture me scratching my ass on a cigarette break outside of work. That’s just plain embarassing. I don’t want to always smile or stand up straight or pretend like i’m in a good mood just because an image might go down on my permanent record. That’s just plain exhausting. Third, everything is context dependent. I’ve done nothing wrong when i stumble out of 1015 drunk as hell and hail a cab, but my drunken stumble is not something that i want to expose to my advisor or, frankly, the government. These are the types of images that people turn around to accuse me of being a citizen or clearly guilty of something else.

I will never forget sitting in the courtroom when my stepfather countersued my mother and accused her of cheating on him. We were all dumbfounded – i didn’t think my mother had cheated and she was pretty sure she hadn’t so we were all curious what this magical evidence was going to be. Apparently, he had hired a PI and he’d snapped photo after photo of… *my* high school boyfriend. Rob always looked older, but the fact that someone thought that my mom was dating him had me laughing for days. Yet, the humor of this paled in comparison to one utterly hysterical photo. It was taken pretty late at night and there was Rob walking the dog out back of our apartment near the woods. The dog was squatting and peeing and Rob was holding on to his penis peeing about 2 feet away from the peeing dog. This picture went down on the divorce record. I often tried to imagine how his Naval officer would’ve felt about this image.

Just because things can be made persistent or information about people’s social lives can be revealed does not mean that it should be done. What the government is doing is not simply watching people in public – they are taking this data and computationally analyzing it to get to the core of people’s practices. This is an invasion of privacy and an act of intense surveillance where the government is spying on its own people. They are doing so without a warrant and justifying it by saying that it is public. Just because people act in public does not mean that it should be stored, analyzed and graphed. Of course, i doubt the law in on my side on this one – it was not written for a world in which such data would be so easily accessible and most of the law concerns the collection of data, not the analysis of it.

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13 comments to NSA spying on digital publics

  • tony

    ironically, with the advent of paper, wasn’t info stored about “letter writers”?

    Seriously, with the relatively low cost of information transfer/creation in today’s world,we should’ve expected this outcome to come around sooner or later.

    How does one put the genie back nto the bottle?

  • Seriously enlightening story… nothing like experiencing invasion of privacy first hand. I like some of your thoughts on how you examined the MySpace social network.

    I’m currently looking at how NGOs could better promote civic engagement by fostering social capital among their immediate public. I wonder if it makes sense to identify bonding, bridging and linking behaviors from their online correspondence.

  • B

    Fantastic post.

    I’m not sure the photo of your friend peeing next to the dog is good, but I picture it hilarious—and there certainly is a great potential of this theme in the “Master & his dog lookalike” category.

    I absolutely agree with you, though I strongly believe that giving the police and the military the best of teaching is the only way out of a dictature. Maybe one should start by the lesson you just gave, before the technical part: that would match Rabelais’ “Science without conscience is nothin’ but a soul’s ruin.”; that would match weapon-handling classes, which start by explainng that these shiny devices can actually do a great deal of harm.

    I understand after the recent news, you don’t feel like trusting law enforcers. Most countries are dfferent; mine is; I could post this if it was otherwise.

    I don’t know if you can change things enogh to turn the direction SNA is heading to—but I refuse to find a solution in obscurantism.

    I believe that the best way to have NSA & other agency sensitive to your concerns is to make their agents know more Californians social scientists, on a friendly basis. ICT can isolate by helping you find similar mindsets; that is want opinion blogs tend to do. They can also help you realise how close you are to someone you considered an adversary. I took this PhD program because I felt responsible to make to later happen, not the first.

    Phone allowed wiretaping; abuses trigered laws that regulated a powerful but dangerous tool. I know they still are mishandling, but I’d rather live in a country with phone than without useful wiretaping. Maybe USA problems come from how far apart Militaries are from reasonable people.

    I’m really sorry if I hurt your feelings by writing my mind; it’s very late here. I love your work. Have a great holiday.

  • To update your AT&T privacy invasion story, it looks like the U.S. government is all set to “wiretap” VoIP services as well. See this New York Times article.

  • Ken

    Dana, I agree on all points (huge congrats on quals, by the way).

    One element I’d like to add is that I find it almost as troublesome that private sector actors are allowed to maintain such records (and worse), with virtually no legal restraint. Think VoterVault and Demzilla, or one of the scores (hundreds?) of credit or consumer-profiling databases that exist.

    To my knowledge, there’s also nothing preventing the government (or either party) from contracting analysis based on such data.

    A brave new world, indeed.

  • Well, a number of years ago, Scott McNealy said it best: “You’ve got no privacy. Get over it.”

    BTW, I find it interesting that all the FaceBook members are voluntarily providing face-recognition to all who are interested.

    Ah, ain’t technology grand?

  • an interesting and frightening read. thanks.

  • >>I’m all in favor of tracking down malicious individuals

  • Some very interesting (and critical) legal precedents will be set in the next few years I’m sure.

    Background check legislation is being pushed onto internet dating sites. (see home page of http://www.idate2006.com for legislation listing).

    Myspace is being hammered by the press for being a feeding ground for those with malicious intent towards youngsters. At least with paid dating sites there’s a way to track people down through their credit card registrations. There’s not much to go on with the likes of Myspace. Anonymity all the way.

    I generally disagree with Myspace filtering/blocking. Schools, OK, perhaps. Best Western in Utah??? The wireless ISP they use blocks Myspace because it is a dating site. Huh?

    Still, it’s amazing just how open and unaware youngsters are on Myspace. They’re committing private information of the highest order to public and now, government dissent.

    Mark Brooks
    editor, onlinepersonalswatch.com

  • Some very interesting (and critical) legal precedents will be set in the next few years I’m sure.

    Background check legislation is being pushed onto internet dating sites. (see home page of http://www.idate2006.com for legislation listing).

    Myspace is being hammered by the press for being a feeding ground for those with malicious intent towards youngsters. At least with paid dating sites there’s a way to track people down through their credit card registrations. There’s not much to go on with the likes of Myspace. Anonymity all the way.

    I generally disagree with Myspace filtering/blocking. Schools, OK, perhaps. Best Western in Utah??? The wireless ISP they use blocks Myspace because it is a dating site. Huh?

    Still, it’s amazing just how open and unaware youngsters are on Myspace. They’re committing private information of the highest order to public and now, government dissent.

    Mark Brooks
    editor, onlinepersonalswatch.com

  • Sure would be nice to get a law additionaly protecting our digital lifeystyle, just like what was made years ago for librar records and video rentals… but maybe that law was made to protect political hopefulls from answering questions about the porn and brokeback mountain they rented – one could only hope that this pendulum of privacy rights will swign back the other way where it belongs. Things like this cause people to not use the internet and stifles communication which in turn stifles progress for artists, ideas, inventions, collaborations and more.

    thank you for poiting it out.

    Perhaps the EFF or somebody can give us action where we can put hope in motion instead of just hoping those in power do the right thing.

  • Thank you for sharing. I believe our only hope is it revisit the the law that made accessing senators, er, I mean people’s, video rental history and library records.. only when politicians worry about what they do do we get any kind of law coverage. most senators dont have myspace accounts – so who cares if it gets mined. On the other hand, a particular congressman with the 90,000 bribe, having his deleted emails come up as evidence, is probably thinking about his, I mean our, privacy :)

  • Shari

    There are no background checks at NSA and I can prove it. I was married to the head of an agency at Homeland Security for 7 years when he was in the military, in 1971. We have a daughter. Daddy didn’t feel like paying child support, so the district attorney had to prosecute him. Daddy disappeared, so the DA tracked him down and found him working for NSA way back in 1986. NSA is an agency full of old military cronies who cover for each other. Daddy never reached higher than E4 in the Navy, and base command threatened to bust him for alcoholism. He was discharged right after that in 1971. So how did Daddy get from point A to head up an agency inside NSA? His cronie friends got him the job.

    I kicked him out in 1976 for drugs. Less than 2 years later, he was hired by NSA because he speaks a foreign language. The defense language guys are the biggest bunch of losers on the planet, they all cover for each other. It was 7 years of getting drunk and lying. Never once in 30 years ever picked up a phone or offered to support his own daughter. Never saw his own kids after 1979. So why didn’t DOD come and ask me why I threw him out and if he was living up to his family responsibilities – since DOD has this grand and glorious background check they brag about? Nobody from DOD ever showed up at my place.

    The DOD is a cronie network of old military losers, who lie and cheat, and cover up for each other. Give me a break!

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