Category Archives: privacy

personalized viral marketing

A viral marketing campaign for Dexter (a “killer” new series) invites people to add information about their friends so that they’ll be sent a personalized video that makes them look like they’re next on the list of people a serial killer is targeting. The video site looks like a YouTube knock-off and there are thousands of views and hundreds of comments pre-populated for this “news” story.

This marketing campaign has already fooled a few. I received a concern message tonight from a friend whose friend received one of these and thought that some stalker had grabbed stuff from her Facebook. Turns out it’s just one of her friends playing a trick on her.

Harvard Business Review Case Commentary: “We Googled You” (newly interactive)

In each issue, the Harvard Business Review has a section called “Case Commentary” where they propose a fictional but realistic scenario and invite different prominent folks to respond. I was given the great honor of being invited to respond to a case entitled “We Googled You.”

In Diane Coutu’s hypothetical scenario, Fred is trying to decide whether or not to hire Mimi after one of Fred’s co-workers googles Mimi and finds newspaper clippings about Mimi protesting Chinese policies. [The case study is 2 pages – this is a very brief synopsis.] Given the scenario, we were then asked, “should Fred hire Mimi despite her online history?”

Unfortunately, Harvard Business Review does not make their issues available for free download (although they are available at the library and the case can be purchased for $6) *but* i acquired permission to publish my commentary online for your enjoyment. It’s a little odd taken out of context, but i still figured some folks might enjoy my view on this matter, especially given that the press keep asking me about this exact topic. (Update: apparently HBR has the case without responses on their site for the Interactive Case Study.)

“We Googled You: Should Fred hire Mimi despite her online history?”

Update: Apparently, unbeknownst to me, HBR has decided to make this case study the First Interactive Case Study. While they don’t share all of our responses with the public, they invite anyone to respond to the case with their own feelings on the matter. They want people to submit to their site so that they can publish the best-of, but personally, i’d be *stoked* to hear how all readers of this blog would respond to this case study. So, please submit something, but also add your thoughts to the comments or post your response to your blog (and comment the URL) so that we can all read your thoughts. I found this exercise mentally fun and i hope you do too! (tx Andy Blanco)

government demands UGC surveillance

The Bush administration has accelerated its Internet surveillance push by proposing that Web sites must keep records of who uploads photographs or videos in case police determine the content is illegal and choose to investigate. — Declan McCullagh, CNET News.

::jaw on ground:: I really hope Declan is wrong on this report because if he’s not, we’re in deep shit. Can you even imagine what this would mean for civil liberties and freedom of speech? This data retention idea is on par with the China policy. ::eyes wide open::

My favorite part of the article is:

Only universities and libraries would be excluded, one participant said. “There’s a PR concern with including the libraries, so we’re not going to include them,” the participant quoted the Justice Department as saying. “We know we’re going to get a pushback, so we’re not going to do that.”

No shit you’d get a pushback. And yet this is the same government that wants to require that all schools and libraries block all content-sharing sites for minors. Put together, there’d be very little in the way of sharing.

Does anyone know if this is real? Links for more information?

(Tx Xeni)

AIM and Plaxo

I just installed AIM for the first time in a bazillion years having used nothing but Adium and Trillian for forever. And what did i find? Apparently, Plaxo has teamed up with AIM for this Universal Address Book. My first reaction was to panic – i want nothing to do with the evil spamming service that has been the bane of my existence since it started. For years, i’ve gone out of my way to provide fake data every time someone sends me a Plaxo invite in an attempt to ward off stalkers and folks who want to connect the dots. As i’ve said before, i want nothing to do with Plaxo (see [1][2]). And then i started breathing and tried to remind myself that companies change, maybe it’s not so bad anymore. To catch my breath, i logged into Bloglines to surf for a few moments before continuing with the signup process. What did i find? Micki’s essay on how Plaxo is holding her data hostage. Back to panic mode.

Why why why can’t Plaxo go away? I don’t want it to connect the dots between who i AIM and who i email and who has me in their addressbook. I don’t want a universal addressbook controlled by some external organization that i don’t trust that spams my friends and keeps data hostage. I don’t like the lack of transparency and the massive amounts of data that they have. I do not trust them, Sam I am.

Gah. And i can’t figure out how to finish installing AIM without making a Plaxo account. ::wimper::

passwords through favorites = bad idea

My credit union decided to change their password recovery system today. Now, you have to choose three questions and answer them. The problem is that they are all “What is your favorite n” where n is restaurant, band, movie, song, actor, book, drink, food, place, past-time…

Uhh… have we not learned anything? People’s favorites change over time. This is not something that a customer will remember and if it is stable, it is probably all over the web on their profiles for dating and social network sites. So not only is this not a reliable way to help customers, it’s about as insecure as you can get. Furthermore, the likelihood of a person writing this down is *huge* because it’s not something that they know by heart (like “where were you born” or “what’s your first pet’s name”).

Can people please stop using favorites in the password recovery process? Pretty please with a cherry on top??

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 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.

erosion of youth privacy – the local panopticon

For those who read my quote in the SF Chronicle today, i want to clarify it a bit as i think privacy and the next generation is a critical issue. I am quoted as having said:

“Teens today grow up in a state of constant surveillance where there is no privacy,” said Danah Boyd, a Ph.D. candidate at UC Berkeley’s School of Information, who studies youth culture and online communities. “So they can’t really have an idea of it being lost. The risk of the government or a corporation coming in and looking at their MySpace site is beyond their consideration.”

This is accurate, but it’s missing the context that makes it meaningful and useful to people concerned with privacy. Teens are growing up in a constant state of surveillance because parents, teachers, school administrators and others who hold direct power over youth are surveilling them. Governments and corporations are beyond their consideration because the people who directly affect their lives have created a more encompassing panopticon than any external structure could ever do. The personal panopticon they live in (managed by people they know and see daily) is far more menacing, far more direct, far more traumatic. As a result, youth are pretty blase about their privacy in relation to government and corporate. Cuz realistically, in comparison to parents/teachers, what can they do?

Privacy folks should be worried about where privacy is going with the next generation, but the erosion is happening on the home front, not on the corporate/governmental level. Unless we figure out how to give youth privacy in their personal lives, they are not going to expect privacy in their public lives.

super publics

I used the phrase “super publics” in my essay last night. I hadn’t introduced it before, although you’ll probably see me use it more and more as my dissertation emerges because i crafted it to help me work through a few things theoretically. I was asked about this term in various emails and i realized that i should probably do some explaining. I’d give a proper definition, but it’s still a work in progress, so instead, bear with me as i take a stab at what i’m going for.

Historically, we have talked about the public, as in the public sphere (Habermas). Implicated in this singular is the idea that there is a coherent entity that one could address or visit. More recently, academics have talked about publics, recognizing that there is no coherent public, but a collection of intertwined publics. In other words, a public in London is not the same as a public in Hong Kong. “The notion of a public enables a reflexivity in the circulation of texts among strangers who become, by virtue of their reflexively circulating discourse, a social entity” (Warner). Translation: publics are made up of strangers who are connected by information and, thus, share a coherent position as receivers of that information. For example, when Mayor Bloomberg speaks of addressing the public, he means all of New York. If he uses his “local” paper (the New York Times) to address his public, the audience who is part of Bloomberg’s public is arguably much larger (especially given the number of folks who see themselves to be New Yorkers). Yet, Bloomberg cannot speak of addressing the public in a global sense because he is not addressing the poor farmer in Kenya. Likewise, that Kenyan’s notion of a public doesn’t include New Yorkers when he speaks in his town’s public square.

Public is also used as an adjective. When it references government (“public services”), it is explicitly limited in scope by the scope of the relevant government – there is no universal public service. As an adjective, it can also connote qualities of exposure typically attributed to addressing an audience of strangers. For example, a public act is one that is visible to an audience of strangers, connected by exposure to that act (a.k.a. a public).

Digital life has really screwed with the notion of public, removing traditional situationism (Goffman) that connects strangers. If the Kenyan farmer is connected to the Internet and reads English, he can be a part of Bloomberg’s public via the New York Times. Yet, this does not mean that the New York Times would conceptualize him in their public, nor does it mean that his public acts would be equally visible by other constituents of the Times.

Digital architectures alter the structure of social life and information flow. Persistence, searchability, the collapse of distance and time, copyability… These are not factors that most everyday people consider when living unmediated lives. Yet, they are increasingly becoming normative in society. Throughout the 20th century, mass media forced journalists and “public” figures to come to terms with this, but digital structures force everyone to do so. People’s notion of public radically changes when they have to account for the Kenyan farmer, their lurking boss, and the person who will access their speech months from now. People’s idea of a public is traditionally bounded by space, time and audience – the park is a public that people understand. And, yet, this is all being disrupted.

In talking about “super publics,” I want to get at the altered state of publics – what publics look like when they are infused with the features of digital architectures. What does it mean to speak across time and space to an unknown audience? What happens when you cannot predict who will witness your act because they are not visible now, even though they may be tomorrow? How do people learn to deal with a public larger and more diverse than the one they learned to make sense of as teenagers? How are teenagers affected by growing up in an environment where they can assume super publics? I want to talk about what it means to speak for all time and space, to audiences you cannot conceptualize.

A reporter recently asked me why kids today have no shame. I told her it was her fault. Media is obsessed with revealing the backstage of people in the public eye – celebrities, politicians, etc. More recently, they’ve created a public eye to put people into – Survivor, Real World, etc. Open digital expression systems coupled with global networks took it one step farther by saying that anyone could operate as media and expose anyone else. What’s juicy is what people want to hide and thus, the media (all media) goes after this like hawks. Add the post-9/11 attitude that if you hide something, you are clearly a terrorist. Should it surprise anyone that teenagers have responded by exposing everything with pride? What better way to react to a super public where everyone is working as paparazzi? There’s nothing juicy about exposing what’s already exposed. Do it yourself and you have nothing to worry about. These are the kinds of things that are emerging as people face life in super publics.

I want to demarcate super publics as distinct from publics because i think that they need some theorizing. In other words, i think that we need to understand the dynamics of super publics, the architectures that enable them, and the behaviors and cultures that emerge because of them.

live on NPR

Well, i spoke live on NPR for the first time today – To The Point (KCRW). The show was called “Google Googled” and it was about privacy online. I was there to talk from youths’ point of view, to talk about why people put material about themselves online.

The thing is that i’m totally terrified of radio and talking outloud over the phone. And i find it so hard to follow what’s going on via phone. But hopefully i didn’t sound stupid. (And if i did, don’t tell me please.) Anyhow, i figured i’d tell you in case you did want to listen cause it was a very interesting show. I’m under the impression that you can get a podcast version from KCRW’s website (but i’m scared to actually listen to it).

In any case, i do think that the topic is important and there’s a real tension. Who holds the responsibilty for what is online? What laws need to be in place? How do certain actions violate our social contract and what are the consequences of this? What does it mean that engines can aggregate public material and make it more accessible? (Are there degrees of publicness?) What are the generational issues as young people want to explore their identity and thus find the publicness super helpful while older folks engage in a sort of protectionism that can border on paranoia?

Privacy is a Privilege

Hey, all of you privacy fanatics, take a look around. Ever stop to wonder why most of you are straight, white and male? It’s kinda obvious if you stop to think about it. Repeat after me: privacy is a privilege. Not a right. Look at the first four letters of those two words: “priv-“. Duh. They come from the same root.

When i saw this comment on one of my posts, i wanted to scream: “Everyone has an absolute right to privacy and marketers have an absolute right to (attempt to) generate revenue with those who step out of their privacy and into the public domain.”

Historically, private space came about with the onset of public space. There is no right to privacy historically or now. Private space is also not guaranteed to be a safe space. Look at issues around domestic abuse. There’s a reason that the law got involved in domestic issues – a woman is not a man’s property in either public or private space and society has a duty to protect her regardless.

Guess what? Just as we have a duty in society to protect people in private space, we have a duty to protect them in public space. We don’t allow people to violate each other when they walk out into the street simply because they chose to step out there. Why should we let institutions do so? What gives marketers some special privilege to determine how people can be psychologically manipulated in society?

The topic at hand has to do with youth. What youth have private space? Sure, your children might have their own bedroom with a lockable door and their own computer. How common do you really think this is? Youth are traditionally a population devoid of any privacy freedoms whatsoever. They have no private space. They move into the public arena to be relieved from the ways in which their parents or school authorities can dictate their mobility and communication. This is not an invitation to manipulation by marketers.

I’m tired of engaging in arguments about privacy with anyone who has not read Habermas’ Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere. Please read it and after finishing, read Warner’s Publics and Counterpublics. Dammit, if privacy is important to you, read these and then let’s talk. But don’t tell me about the right to privacy until you understand the historical trajectory of privacy and think about how marginalized populations. It’s not so utopian cut and dry; privacy is a privilege that many people in this world would die to have.

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