eyes on the street or creepy surveillance?

This summer, with NSA scandal after NSA scandal, the public has (thankfully) started to wake up to issues of privacy, surveillance, and monitoring. We are living in a data world and there are serious questions to ask and contend with. But part of what makes this data world messy is that it’s not so easy as to say that all monitoring is always bad. Over the last week, I’ve been asked by a bunch of folks to comment on the report that a California school district hired an online monitoring firm to watch its students. This is a great example of a situation that is complicated.

The media coverage focuses on how the posts that they are monitoring are public, suggesting that this excuses their actions because “no privacy is violated.” We should all know by now that this is a terrible justification. Just because teens’ content is publicly accessible does not mean that it is intended for universal audiences nor does it mean that the onlooker understands what they see. (Alice Marwick and I discuss youth privacy dynamics in detail in “Social Privacy in Networked Publics”.) But I want to caution against jumping to the opposite conclusion because these cases aren’t as simple as they might seem.

Consider Tess’ story. In 2007, she and her friend killed her mother. The media reported it as “girl with MySpace kills mother” so I decided to investigate the case. For 1.5 years, she documented on a public MySpace her struggles with her mother’s alcoholism and abuse, her attempts to run away, her efforts to seek help. When I reached out to her friends after she was arrested, I learned that they had reported their concerns to the school but no one did anything. Later, I learned that the school didn’t investigate because MySpace was blocked on campus so they couldn’t see what she had posted. And although the school had notified social services out of concern, they didn’t have enough evidence to move forward. What became clear in this incident – and many others that I tracked – is that there are plenty of youth crying out for help online on a daily basis. Youth who could really benefit from the fact that their material is visible and someone is paying attention.

Many youth cry out for help through social media. Publicly, often very publicly. Sometimes for an intended audience. Sometimes as a call to the wind for anyone who might be paying attention. I’ve read far too many suicide notes and abuse stories to believe that privacy is the only frame viable here. One of the most heartbreaking was from a girl who was commercially sexually exploited by her middle class father. She had gone to her school who had helped her go to the police; the police refused to help. She published every detail on Twitter about exactly what he had done to her and all of the people who failed to help her. The next day she died by suicide.  In my research, I’ve run across too many troubled youth to count. I’ve spent many a long night trying to help teens I encounter connect with services that can help them.

So here’s the question that underlies any discussion of monitoring: how do we leverage the visibility of online content to see and hear youth in a healthy way? How do we use the technologies that we have to protect them rather than focusing on punishing them?  We shouldn’t ignore youth who are using social media to voice their pain in the hopes that someone who cares might stumble across their pleas.

Urban theorist Jane Jacobs used to argue that the safest societies are those where there are “eyes on the street.” What she meant by this was that healthy communities looked out for each other, were attentive to when others were hurting, and were generally present when things went haywire. How do we create eyes on the digital street? How do we do so in a way that’s not creepy?  When is proactive monitoring valuable for making a difference in teens’ lives?  How do we make sure that these same tools aren’t abused for more malicious purposes?

What matters is who is doing the looking and for what purposes. When the looking is done by police, the frame is punitive. But when the looking is done by caring, concerned, compassionate people – even authority figures like social workers – the outcome can be quite different. However well-intended, law enforcement’s role is to uphold the law and people perceive their presence as oppressive even when they’re trying to help. And, sadly, when law enforcement is involved, it’s all too likely that someone will find something wrong. And then we end up with the kinds of surveillance that punishes.

If there’s infrastructure put into place for people to look out for youth who are in deep trouble, I’m all for it. But the intention behind the looking matters the most. When you’re looking for kids who are in trouble in order to help them, you look for cries for help that are public. If you’re looking to punish, you’ll misinterpret content, take what’s intended to be private and publicly punish, and otherwise abuse youth in a new way.

Unfortunately, what worries me is that systems that are put into place to help often get used to punish. There is often a slippery slope where the designers and implementers never intended for it to be used that way. But once it’s there….

So here’s my question to you. How can we leverage technology to provide an additional safety net for youth who are struggling without causing undue harm? We need to create a society where people are willing to check in on each other without abusing the power of visibility. We need more eyes on the street in the Jacbos-ian sense, not in the surveillance state sense. Finding this balance won’t be easy but I think that it behooves us to not jump to extremes. So what’s the path forward?

(I discuss this issue in more detail in my upcoming book “It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens.”  You can pre-order the book now!)

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12 thoughts on “eyes on the street or creepy surveillance?

  1. Eli The Man

    First off, I would like to agree that it will be difficult to find a balance between surveillance and privacy. With online communication being one of the most used forms of textual interaction, it poses a big problem because everybody is in a different situation. Therefore, if measures are taken to help protect people in need, it may cause others to believe that their privacy is being violated. I believe it would be wonderful if it is possible to leverage technology to provide an additional safety net for youth who are struggling, although I cannot think of anything that might act as this safety net. Also, im not sure how this would be possible, but an alternative solution is to encourage youth in need to voice their cris for help in other places than the internet and discourage them from limiting their friends to social network connections. I say this because the internet is so crowded with nonsense, fakes and unreliability, and if somebody needs help, it would be much easier to see that in person rather than on the internet. But once again, I don’t exactly know how one would go about achieving this.

  2. Zane

    The path forward to creating a society where people are willing to check in on each other without abusing the power of visibility is by abiding to surveillance ethics. According to Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, there is an entry titled “Surveillance Ethics,” which discusses whether surveillance should be justified or not. Under the section “Necessity,” the author asks “When is surveillance necessary, though? Should surveillance, like war, be a matter of last resort? If so, when is that moment of last resort reached?” According to Dana Boyd, surveillance should be justified when “when the looking is done by caring, concerned, compassionate people.” I agree with Boyd’s position that surveillance should be done by compassionate people who are concerned about the welfare of people. Surveillance is unjustified when law enforcement is involved with surveillance because the police would use surveillance to punish. I believe that surveillance should be used as a last resort to protect people from harming themselves. Surveillance shouldn’t be used for purposes of law enforcement because law enforcement might take punitive measures with surveillance.

  3. BBald

    I have to agree with both you and Eli in that finding the balance between surveillance and privacy is a difficult task yet one that must be sought after and found. We just talked about the concept of “Obscurity” that Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger talk about in Obscurity: A Better Way to Think About Your Data Than ‘Privacy’ and Big Data in Small Hands in my “Ethics in a Digital World” class. Thinking along those lines and with the advance of Computer database systems that cannot only store but also retrieve information automatically at increasingly greater ease (think of IBM’s “Watson”) I would think that it would be easy to set up a system (if not now in the near future) to not only “look out” for the type of cry’s for help that you talk about in your article but also respond in some way to those cry’s. This brings several questions to mind. Is this type of automatic “surveillance”, if you will, ethical? Does it invade privacy? or is it just “a neighbor in the neighborhood looking out for another neighbor”?

  4. Derrick

    It is an undeniable fact that many people turn to social networks to pour out their frustration with the sole intention that friends and family will see. We all, therefore, have a shared responsibility of alerting the appropriate authorities when we see that someone has posted something expressing his/her frustration on a social network. This does not call for any ‘external’ surveillance as it amounts to invading people’s privacy. Although people use these networks to let people know what is going on in their lives, they have an intended ‘audience’; people who they want to share with. Sometimes, it just takes a phone call and the person would be alright. If people get to know that there are others, other than those they want to share with, monitoring them, they would prefer to keep their frustrations to themselves which could be more dangerous as it would increase the number of suicide, not only in the States, but the large at large.

  5. C_Cit

    I bet that simple internet illiteracy is the problem much of the time. Most “grown-ups” have no idea how online social networking functions — technologically or socially. In Tess’ story, how hard would it have been for a school employee to go off-campus to review the Myspace postings of concern, or to temporarily un-block Myspace on campus for the purpose of reviewing them? And when the social services “didn’t have enough evidence to move forward”, is that because they didn’t know how to use Myspace posts as evidence — or that the judge (or whoever would have reviewed the evidence to grant authority to move forward) wouldn’t have understood Myspace? Same in that sickening example of the sexually-exploited girl: was “Twitter illiteracy” among the police and/or school a factor in explaining why they offered no help? (Though it still seems inexcusable that anyone would fail to help a girl claiming to be suffering from sexual abuse.)

    I’m glad for blogs like this saying that the balance of surveillance vs privacy is a “messy” issue. Most of the comment out there seems overly dogmatic and black-or-white.

  6. JustMy.02

    I agree that there are many gray areas om privacy. The case documented above is a tragedy and could easily have been avoided. However in the vast majority of cases, I have to weigh in on the side of privacy.

    Media coverage tends to distort our collective reality. Every time a tragedy like this happens, it is widely reported and leaves everyone wringing their hands and demanding that government pass legislation to prevent this from ever happening again. But for every tragedy like this I bet there are literally thousands of social media posts that are false alarms from overly dramatic teenagers that never get any media coverage. I think this is why the United States has become the Nanny State.

  7. Gary B

    Given the situation, the school should have notified police or social services once they had a REPORT of a problem. Not the school’s business to monitor MySpace anyway. The police would have needed a warrant, that’s all.

    People are far to willing now to give up more freedoms than they have already. I’d not allow a school to monitor MY child’s online activities.

  8. Remko

    The issue with using technology as a means to check in on each other (or society checking in on its members) is I think that technology may well be considered value-free in itself, but the people who use it are definitely not. And once the technological means are up and running it will be very hard to get rid of them when surveillance starts to include behavior and thought we (but not all governments) now consider private.
    So to provide that safety net for youth (or anyone else who needs safety) it would be best to introduce and advertise an easily accessible portal where you can ask for any help you might need. And we the people can provide the eyes on the street and in schools and companies and wherever we are. And not close them for fear of minding someone else’s business or getting in trouble ourselves.


  9. Born6'5

    Hello miss Boyd

    I am a college student in a class covering philosophy and technology and I am assigned to post on a blog weekly. I have chosen this article to comment on. Please comment back if I raise any good discussion question.

    First off, I would like to say that I do not believe that privacy exists on the internet. That being said I also think that much of the violating of privacy on the internet does not create positive outcomes. The term surveillance has been thrown around a lot by our government in order for them to be able to watch whatever activity they want to. Because of this, many people think that if your looking into their personal accounts on the internet you are there to take advantage of them. The example given about the young girl is a perfect one because teens are a group of people that get over looked when it comes to surveillance. At that age, teens are likely to be secretive because of the changes they are going through, but they also want someone, or something to tell their secrets to. They need that outlet if they don’t want to tell their parents. So they turn to the closest thing to a dairy or safe place to store their feelings and secrets. On their “private” social network account. We assume that these teens worries are nothing more then “who likes who?” and “he said, she said” conversations when in fact they could be as serious as the young girls, mentioned in your post.
    My suggestion for a resolution to the problems expressed in your posting is creating a social network meant for people with real life problems like the young girl with an alcoholic mother. They are there to share their problems with other people having to deal with similar problems. There is still a social networking feel to the site but it is made clear that the government as well as local authorities watch the posts in case someone needs help.
    There are plenty of ways that this site could fail and no one would feel comfortable posting on the site for the very fact that they know someone is reading their personal struggles. But on the off chance that people might start supporting each other, the site would work out great.
    I understand that you have a belief in people looking out for each other but its hard for me to have that kind of faith in human kind. Do you truly believe that our best option is to hope that people start to monitor the internet and watch out for each other? What would be an alternative that didn’t involove people doing the “right thing?”

  10. Patrick

    Hi my name is Patrick, and I’m posting here for a class.

    I think that technology can do great things in enlightened hands. The problem with surveillance is that every person is biased, and has their own agenda. When you put your privacy in someone else’s hands you don’t know what they’re going to do with it. It’s awful what happened to those kids, but I don’t think that someone should be monitoring people. At least not in any official capacity. As was said in the article, when technology that is used to survey is put in the hands of law enforcement of any kind it is used to punish. In the second most recent batman movie a similar dilema was faced. Batman was trying to catch a criminal by using a universal surveilance technology. It worked by using every cellphone in existence to ping locations to a computer. This would allow the user to see everything anyone was doing at anytime. The problem was they didn’t think that anyone should have the power to do that. No one should be able to see into peoples personal lives without express permission.

  11. AJ

    I am a college student that is discussing similar topics in class and I agree that in some situations the monitoring of social networking can be a good thing. But I can’t help but to believe that it currently is impossible to create a balance between surveillance and privacy. Not because it can’t be done, but because someone somewhere is going to try to make a case saying that this is invasion of privacy or some other idea that leads you to believe that the information gathered would be used for reasons other than helping the person in need. I think that we can bring this idea to life only if everyone was able to accept what some consider to be a breach of privacy (no matter how small). Once this was a widely acceptable way of helping people, we then could find ways to use these tools we have to help, or even build new tools that would be just as effective.

  12. Brian O' Hanlon

    Funny you should mention this. I had breakfast this morning with an elderly lad, and she was telling me she can’t put home heating oil in her tank in rural Ireland any longer, because it gets stolen. She had about $1,500 worth of fuel stolen recently. It was only just delivered, and puff! She goes to shops, and comes back and heating doesn’t work any longer. Her son came over and put the brush handle in, and there was not even enough left to wet the top of the brush handle. I said, that some people now have surveillance cameras, and she told me that she has cameras now too.

    We are really getting into the area of Hernando de Soto I think. In Dublin a few years ago, he told a group of students, about how police work in the southern hemisphere was often done by putting a cop on every corner. There weren’t enough records etc kept, to trace down people via addresses and paperwork, unlike in the northern hemisphere. In the way that de Soto describes the poorest parts of Peru, where the farmers etc, cannot leave their land for even a few days to travel, or it will be taken over when they return. It is not until one removes the idea of a legal system, and a system of owning property, that we realize the part that it plays. However, with the heating oil thing now in Ireland though, it appears that a sort of Peruvian rule takes over, and this is where the ‘cop on every corner’, comes back into the equation, you see.

    Just some random thoughts for what it is worth.

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