Privacy in the Age of New Media

by Ed Lamoureux
Department of Interactive Media and Department of Communication, Bradley University

In the August 2011 issue of Wired magazine, Clive Thompson reminds us of “The Breakthrough Myth”—that most innovations happen overnight or take us by surprise. This belief is myth because real cultural changes have been “percolating in plain sight for years.” Such is the case with the seemingly sudden loss of privacy in the age of new media.

I find remarkable the degree that Americans have given up their privacy. It is my contention that had either the government or private entities worked so hard to strip our property, freedom of religion, or freedom of speech as they have to take away privacy, there would have been civil revolt. Although it seems that we gave up our privacy overnight, doing so was actually a gradual process over the course of 50 or 60 years. We have traded our privacy for (mostly) convenience and commercial profit. And this is a tale of trends that are very difficult, if not impossible, to reverse.

We will examine five aspects of these trends. First, what is privacy? Second, what has made privacy more complicated in the last 60 years? Third, who is watching, collecting, processing and disseminating information about us? Fourth, what are the significant problems with the current situation? And finally, what might you do if you really want to protect your privacy?

Defining Privacy
So what is privacy anyway? “The right to be left alone” was first articulated for American law in a 1890 Harvard Law Review article co-authored by Samuel D. Warren and (future Supreme Court Justice) Louis D. Brandeis. Additionally, we have a sense that others should have limited access to our sense of selves and that we should be allowed some secrecy about our personal information. We have the sense that if we choose not to live in the public eye, that decision will be respected by others. We have the right to control our identity and image from unauthorized commercial use and from others casting our good name into false light. And while such expectations are not directly enshrined within the Constitution or Bill of Rights, a long series of laws and court cases have established that even in these times of receding privacy, numerous legal protections of our privacy exist.

Yet, despite these protections, our privacy is compromised by a wide-ranging collection of data that is manipulated in various ways. It is aggregated and mined, primarily by computers and algorithms, and sometimes, people are identified via these collections and investigations. Most of all, it is shared with a variety of others via commerce in which massive amounts of data change hands for profit (profit that we never see). Sometimes that data is released unintentionally. It is almost always exchanged outside of our conscious awareness, without our direct permission or even partial understanding of the uses to which it is put.

Factors That Complicate Privacy
Almost every factor that has complicated the privacy environment over the last 60 years has its advantages and disadvantages. In fact, it is sometimes easier to see the benefits than the costs. Often, however, negative features overshadow the pluses that are claimed. When all the forces are combined, they produce an enormous amount of data about our lives and habits.

  • Computerization of records by the government and private companies. Computerization provides an efficient mechanism for garnering helpful insights from information that has already been collected in the course of everyday life. Clearly, it is good when computerized records ensure that criminals are denied handguns and drivers with suspended licenses are forbidden from working as truck drivers. But the same processes run great risks for the mismanagement of information. When your name appears on a “do not fly” list because you share the same name as an accused terrorist, efficiency seems less than fair. Digital records leave tracks and provide pathways to follow those tracks that analog records do not.
  • Increased use of electronic surveillance technologies by law enforcement. The downtown street corner may well be safer because a camera mounted there may deter criminal activity. However, your appearance on a surveillance video as you exit a legal establishment—let’s say, a strip joint, liquor store or hotel at a late hour— may expose you to embarrassment (or loss of employment) even if you did no wrong.
  • The increasing sophistication of marketing and market research. Media industries, especially the new media, tell us that the more they know about us, the better they can fine-tune our user experience so our time and attention are less wasted. As a result, we more often see what we want and don’t see what we don’t want. To target advertising properly, media outlets have to know a lot about us and about our habits. That requires massive amounts of user data.
  • The move away from cash. Using checks, credit and debit cards, and online shopping are increasingly convenient. With each move toward electronic payments, additional tracking and data collection are enabled.
  • Bar coding. As businesses moved to streamline the delivery chain, a large number of efficiencies were introduced, many enabling better service and less expensive products. As electronic transactions multiply and product specificity combines with personal purchasing information, more and more data about our spending habits are processed.
  • Loyalty programs and memberships save us money at the point of purchase. They connect our purchases to our profiles, multiplying the information about our lives exponentially.
  • New media, especially the Internet and cell phone technologies that match our activities to our locations. For example, knowing our location allows Major League Baseball to enable us to watch games over the Internet without violating license agreements with local broadcasters. The more specifically our activities can be tracked to particular locations, the more likely we are to be personally identified via what were previously aggregated data sets.
  • Social media, especially when we add lots of personal information. It is wonderful to be able to keep in contact with family and friends via social media. Operators of social media can—and do—mine every aspect of our contributions for elements they can aggregate, analyze and sell for profit.

In short, there are now hardly any activities that do not feed data into the information environment. The Age of Information long ago ceased to be about our having access to all the information in the world. It has turned inward toward providing commercial entities with all the information about us that they can imagine.

Who Is Watching?
A wide range of entities collect information about us. Though not exhaustive, the breadth of the following list is instructive, especially to the extent that it seems perfectly reasonable.

A wide range of public entities collect information about us. Depending on our circumstances, we report information to international, federal, state and local governmental agencies. There are numerous public/private collaborations, like public utilities and partners (such as I-PASS or the towing outfits) that collect information from us. Some of us provide information about ourselves to law enforcement at the international, federal, state and/or local levels.

There are an enormous number of non-commercial, non-governmental service industries that require scads of data in order to provide us with their services. To name a few, these include all the entities involved in our healthcare (don’t forget the insurance companies), libraries, churches and schools—and all the identification cards that go with them.

Additionally, there are private, pseudo-commercial outfits, that is, operations that are private but removed from the customer in a way that they appear to be “behind the scenes” and might not be identified by most users as commercial operators. Search engines, advertisers, marketers, website operators, demographers and all the good folks in the communications industries (the ISPs; phone, cable and satellite companies; email providers and social networks) might fit into this category.

And of course, there are all the private commercial enterprises (both on- and offline) that make up the world of retail sales, banking and financial activities.

So, What’s the Problem?
It seems as though we’ve identified most of modern life, and certainly most commercial enterprises, as privacy problems. How can it be that so many everyday activities can be seen as risky or troublesome?

Perhaps the biggest problem relating to privacy in the current age is that most of the activities using our personal information happen behind the scenes, out of our awareness and control, and depend on our trust of these institutions and our uninformed calculation of risks and benefits. Sometimes this isn’t a problem. While the specter of “Big Brother” may encourage some to worry about the role of the federal government, in some ways the law is relatively handy with regard to governmental actions, as many laws limit what our government can collect and do with information.

In other ways, the law is not helpful. For example, there is no single privacy law, at the federal or state levels. The ways that governments collect and use information can in themselves compromise our privacy. And of course, the law is hardly helpful at all with regard to private actions, especially corporate actions that are almost totally unregulated.

Here are some examples that show how a lot of the stuff that is really good for us can also be really bad for us:

  • There are a number of laws designed to protect our privacy by limiting the degree to which governments (especially the federal government) can connect various databases and tie our individual data across them. These help protect us from really intrusive and controlling governmental surveillance. However, this also makes it difficult for our government to protect us from the bad guys, because the databases that would hook up information that might identify risks aren’t connected.
  • The government is making more “public” data available in useful forms. Previously, they had the data, but it was all on paper or cards, and only in Washington, D.C., and even when released, was very difficult to search. Lately, they’ve been releasing enormous, computerized, searchable databases, so we can find out what information they have about us and others. That seems like a very good development. Yes, except all that data is a gold mine for those who would target us, either for crimes or commerce, and since it’s public, the more usable it is, the easier it is to use against us.
  • Most major cities use video surveillance cameras to keep an eye on high-crime areas. Of course, these cameras take the same pictures of innocent people as those of criminals, so the presumption of innocence that would normally prevent the collection of evidence...well...doesn’t.
  • The Internet makes a lot of information available at the tap of a button. But it will probably only work, long-term, if targeted marketing gets more and more specific and effective, and for that to happen, “they” have to collect a lot of information about us. The Internet doesn’t pay for itself very well, unless we can raise the ad rates that can be charged. To do that, the ads have to be more effective. And on the Internet, that means more targeted, which means, based on more information collected from and about us.

Protecting Your Privacy
There are a number of steps that we can take to protect our privacy, but it’s not easy. Again, the following list is intended as instructive, rather than exhaustive.

  • Instead of using credit, debit or checks, get cash from a teller at the bank and spend it at places where you do not provide an identification/loyalty card/membership card. Avoid cash machines. Try to avoid running up bills so you don’t have to pay in increments. 
  • Never answer a survey. 
  • Whenever possible, negotiate with service providers (like doctors) over the terms of their release forms. Allow information release only to the specific entities you approve of and only in the most limited circumstances. Always exclude sharing this information with “their partners,” by bringing a boilerplate that you add to every document that you sign. Make them sign your contract to protect your privacy before you’ll sign theirs to abrogate it. Read every privacy policy given to you thoroughly, and only initial the parts you agree to. Cross out the rest. Then hope that they will still serve you.
  • Put your name on the national “do not call” list.
  • Do not give money to any telemarketer, ever.
  • Do not use mobile phones. Use only hard-wired telephones. Conversations via mobile phones are easy to intercept; wire-tapping phone lines requires a court order.
  • Do not use fancy electronic devices like GPS or smart phones; they often report your location to providers. Use mp3 players for listening to music that you have purchased as disks and have loaded on the devices without the use of networks.
  • Purchase a new antenna that picks up digital TV signals over the air. Do not subscribe to cable television. Digital cable contains within it the capacity to report viewing habits back to providers.
  • Do not use the Internet very often (if at all). Do not search for information on the Web. If you must, go to the library and ask a librarian to do the search for you. When on the Web, only go to sites that you most want to use—don’t surf around. Treat the Internet like your TV: there are many channels, use only a few. Go only to sites that you are willing to have others know you visit. Set all preferences to block cookies and every other sort of reporting mechanism used in browsers. If a web service requires cookies, don’t use it. 
  • Use electronic mail seldom. When you use it, use only accounts that you establish with a private ISP. Don’t use your work network, and don’t sign up for a commercial service through entities like Google. You have little to no control over information you put on someone else’s network.
  • If you must have data services, use only those provided by small, private providers. Avoid the big guys (Google, AT&T, Comcast, etc.). The small, local guys probably get their service from the big outfits, but moving through the go-between puts an entity between you and the big fish. This is not protection, but it can make information retrieval somewhat more complicated for prying eyes.
  • Do not use social media. Of any sort, any time, for anything.
  • Support politicians who want to put constraints on what governments and private companies can do with your data. Don’t support politicians who want to free governments and private companies from constraints as to what they can do with your data. This may put you at odds with “free enterprise” at times.

Finally, do as I say, not as I do. As much as I know about all of this stuff, I don’t do 20 percent of what I just recommended, though I’d love to do more. You see, really getting off the grid is just too much trouble these days. iBi