Privacy is For Finding Out Who We Are When We Are Not Performing Ourselves

“Privacy is essential to human agency and dignity. Denying someone privacy—even when it’s as seemingly small as a parent who won’t let their kid close the door—has a corrosive effect, eroding trust as well as our sense of interiority. When we scale up the individual to a body politic, it is the private sphere that’s crucial for our capacity for democracy and self-determination. As individuals, we need privacy to figure out who we are when we’re no longer performing the self. As a collective, we have to be able to distinguish who we are as individuals hidden from the norms and pressures of the group in order to reason clearly about how we want to shape the group. Elections have secret ballots for a reason.

If we do care about privacy as a collective value, then it cannot be an individual burden. Right now, privacy is essentially a luxury good. If you can afford not to use coupons, you don’t have to let retailers track your shopping habits with loyalty points. If you’re technically savvy, you don’t have to let Gmail see all your emails. Not only does that make access to privacy incredibly inequitable, it also affects our collective understanding of what is a ‘normal’ amount of privacy.”

-Jenny, “left alone, together.” phirephoenix.com. May 3, 2021.

Coveillance

“Increasingly powerful surveillance tools have shifted the power dynamics between people and institutions. To address this new dynamic, we’ve been creating a toolkit, in collaboration with the ACLU of Washington, that demystifies surveillance technologies in Seattle in the historical context of structural inequities in the United States.”

https://coveillance.org/

Behind the One-Way Mirror: A Deep Dive Into the Technology of Corporate Surveillance

“…This paper will focus on corporate “third-party” tracking: the collection of personal information by companies that users don’t intend to interact with. It will shed light on the technical methods and business practices behind third-party tracking…

The first step is to break the one-way mirror. We need to shed light on the tangled network of trackers that lurk in the shadows behind the glass. In the sunlight, these systems of commercial surveillance are exposed for what they are: Orwellian, but not omniscient; entrenched, but not inevitable. Once we, the users, understand what we’re up against, we can fight back.”

-Bennett Cyphers, “Behind the One-Way Mirror: A Deep Dive Into the Technology of Corporate Surveillance.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. December 2, 2019.

The Inbox: A Scattered, Ad-Ridden Archive of Our Lives

“To examine our inboxes is to examine our lives: our desires and dreams, our families and careers, our status, our networks and our social groupings, our projects, our commerce, our politics, our secrets/lies/fetishes. Inboxes are anthropological goldmines, textual archives, psychological case studies, waiting to be plumbed and probed for the expansive cultural, ethical, epistemological, and ontological insights lurking therein.
On second thought: they are probably not waiting to be probed, but actually being probed, scanned and algorithmatized, by Google, Amazon, the National Security Agency, the Russians, Julian Assange, employers, ex-lovers who remember your password, current lovers who install surveillance software on your laptop to monitor emails to your ex-lover/next lover, hackers who create fake networks on any public wifi you log onto, and/or anyone else who cares to discover whatever “secrets” you are secreting into the tubes.

It makes more sense to assume your email is a public document than to cling to improbable expectations of privacy. The Post Office made a point of delivering our letters sealed, intact. But the email overseers can read through our inboxes at will without us being any the wiser, and they let others look too…”

—Randy Malamud, “The Inbox: A Scattered, Ad-Ridden Archive of Our Lives.” Literary Hub. October 9, 2019.

Every time I see something like this I can’t help wondering: does this person not realize that you can pay for email and by doing so, you can eliminate advertising and have a reasonably secure email archive? Off the top of my head, Protonmail, Posteo, Tutanota, and Lavabit are all reasonable choices for an email provider.

Safety or Stalker App?

“…Life360, a location-sharing app aimed at families, is apparently ruining the lives of teenagers all across the United States…Parents can now remotely check their child’s browsing histories and social media accounts, watch their movements via motion-sensing cameras, and track everywhere they go with location-sharing apps. In a Pew Research Center study last year, 58 percent of US parents said they sometimes or often look at their teenager’s messages, call logs, and the websites they visit. In a separate study from 2016, 16 percent said they used location-sharing apps.”

—Louise Matsakis, “On TikTok, Teens Meme Life360, the Safety App Ruining Their Summer.” Wired. July 12, 2019.

Contrast the features of Life360 with this report from The Citizen Lab on Stalkerware:

“Persons who engage in technology-facilitated violence, abuse, and harassment sometimes install spyware on a targeted person’s mobile phone. Spyware has a wide range of capabilities, including pervasive monitoring of text and chat messages, recording phone logs, tracking social media posts, logging website visits, activating a GPS system, registering keystrokes, and even activating phones’ microphones and cameras, as well as sometimes blocking incoming phone calls. These capabilities can afford dramatic powers and control over an individual’s everyday life. And when this software is used abusively, it can operate as a predator in a person’s pocket, magnifying the pervasive surveillance of the spyware operator.”

Christopher Parsons, Adam Molnar, et al. “The Predator in Your Pocket A Multidisciplinary Assessment of the Stalkerware Application Industry.” Citizen Lab. June 12, 2019.

Open question: What distinguishes a “safety app” from a “stalking app,” the presumably benign intentions of parents? What happens to children that grow up in this environment? Will they go on to submit to this kind of surveillance from their domestic partners and spouses? What of the underlying economics that are reporting all your activity in order to refine automotive insurance pricing?

If you think through the implications, surveillance capitalism is often sold as a “safety” feature, but the economics are driven by other considerations. Further, the impact on human flourishing and autonomy are rarely understood and often significant. These developments are not good for anyone other than the people providing the app. Don’t be fooled.

Duckduckgo.com

Virtually all internet users tend to be Google search engine users, by default. The main strategy for Google is to try to hold on to the users it has by implementing better security and privacy protection measures. This is something definitely on their agenda, but the issue still remains that user data is tracked. Therefore, Google is leaking some users who are leaving its boat in order to climb aboard that of Duckduckgo.

-Miriam Cihodariu, “Duckduckgo vs Google: A Security Comparison and How to Maximize Your Privacy.” Heimdal Security. May 16, 2019.

I left the Google boat two years ago. I have been consistently using Duckduckgo.com for a couple of years. It’s not as good as Google, but it is adequate for most searches you need to do. I typically only need to use Google if I am looking for answers to a difficult question, it requires Google maps functionality (such as looking for restaurants meeting certain criteria near a specific location), or I am looking for recent news on a specific topic. Duckduckgo.com has the ability to limit to news items, but the number of sources they have compared to Google is limited.

In short, Duckduckgo is a decent Google replacement, if you are willing to exchange a little functionality for a little more privacy. I think it is a worth doing.

Walgreens Tests New Smart Coolers

“Walgreens is piloting a new line of “smart coolers”—fridges equipped with cameras that scan shoppers’ faces and make inferences on their age and gender. On January 14, the company announced its first trial at a store in Chicago in January, and plans to equip stores in New York and San Francisco with the tech.

Demographic information is key to retail shopping. Retailers want to know what people are buying, segmenting shoppers by gender, age, and income (to name a few characteristics) and then targeting them precisely.”

—Sidney Fussel, “Now Your Groceries See You, Too.” The Atlantic. January 25, 2019.

Another technology that sounds creepy, but will be everywhere in 10 years and no one will think twice about. It reminds me of the good old days when movie theaters started on time and didn’t show 20 minutes of ads first.

Google’s Sidewalk Labs Plans to Package and Sell Location Data on Millions of Cellphones

“We audit their practices to ensure they are complying with industry codes of conduct,” said Bowden. “No Google data is used. This extensive audit process includes regular reporting, interviews, and evaluation to ensure vendors meet specified requirements around consent, opt-out, and privacy protections.”

—Ava Kofman, “Google’s Sidewalk Labs Plans to Package and Sell Location Data on Millions of Cellphones.” The Intercept. January 28, 2019.

As these ideas go, this is a good use of the kind of data phones are collecting. For urban planning, it’s great to be able to look at real time road, sidewalk, public transit, building, park and other infrastructure usage.

But, it always starts with good ideas and then, the incentives encourage implementations and extensions that are a net negative, such as using real time location data and artificial intelligence to look for anomalous movement patterns for policing. That’s only the tip of the iceberg of ways this information, packaged in aggregate, could go horribly wrong.

Also, no Google data is being used? Even if true, the key word missing is “…yet.” They are seeing how it is received first, putting it on telephone service providers, before they add in Google data. A Google service of this type will eventually use Google data.