We suffer from the notion that privacy is about protecting your life from government, whereas most attempts to know and control how we behave are conducted by corporations, religions and educational institutions.
The notion of privacy in our society is constantly evolving, but a pair of 21st century developments — the birth of Internet-based social networks and the rise of intrusive anti-terrorism snooping by the government — are wrecking traditional expectations and confounding social scientists.
We want our privacy, either physically or electronically, except when we don’t. We want to be left alone and unobserved by others unless we decide to share our most intimate thoughts or photographs on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. And we may not be able to ensure privacy if we communicate in any method beyond chatting with a family member in our own house.
It’s an issue evolving so quickly and thoroughly that even a few months ago, the conversation would have been fundamentally different. In early June, a former government contractor, Edward Snowden, revealed the existence of several classified U.S. and British surveillance programs centered on telephone and Internet usage.
Among Snowden’s claims is the revelation that the U.S. government compelled cellular phone giant Verizon to produce the phone records from millions of Americans, raising the specter of government snooping into telephone conversations — something that many believe are inherently private.
Snowden also described a program called “Prism,” through which the National Security Agency (NSA) was able to directly access information from such Internet giants as Google, Facebook, Apple and others.
The United States government has described the incident as the largest NSA breach in the nation’s history, calling into
question just how much privacy anyone has while talking on the phone or using a computer.
“Snowden is an important case which highlights that much is hidden under the public surface,” said Fabio Pasqualetti, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the Bourns College of Engineering and an expert in large networked computer systems. He also specializes in cyber-physical security, robotic patrolling and persistent surveillance.
“Although some of Snowden’s revelations were already known,” Pasqualetti said, “probably much remains undisclosed.”
And that, scholars say, is the real rub. There’s no way to know if the government’s intrusions into areas we thought were private are worthwhile. That is because showing us how they are keeping us safe would expose the very nature of the information-gathering process.
So, are we really gaining anything in terms of safety while losing our inherent privacy rights?
“As the state does not tell us about its successful interventions against terrorism and the part played in those by technology, we can’t know the answer to this,” said Toby Miller, a professor of media and cultural studies who has written extensively about the intersection of technology and culture.
Miller says he hasn’t been surprised by anything Snowden has revealed so far. However, the most shocking thing about the Snowden situation is getting lost in the shuffle: Snowden is not even a government employee. The documents he had access to were outsourced to a private corporation, which strikes at the heart of whether any electronic communication is secure anymore.
“In the United States, we suffer from the notion that privacy is about protecting your life from government, whereas most attempts to know and control how we behave are conducted by corporations, religions and educational institutions,” Miller said.
That emphasis on secrecy also makes it difficult to know whether there might be a healthy balance between government snooping and absolute privacy.
“Without knowing how the data being collected is stored and who it is being shared with, it is hard to figure out how these programs can be modified to better protect privacy without significantly compromising the government’s ability to protect the nation’s security,” said Harsha V. Madhyastha, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering. His research on how to improve user privacy and security on online social networks and other topics has been supported by the Army Research Office, Amazon, a Google Research award and others.
“At the moment, the government is largely following a ‘security through obscurity’ approach, which has been repeatedly shown to not be sustainable.”
Who Needs the NSA When We Have Facebook?
In many ways, the biggest threat to our own privacy is ourselves. We say we value our privacy, but we simultaneously broadcast the details of our lives to friends and family via social media such as Facebook or — especially in the case of Twitter — the entire world. The growth of such social media networks has radically changed people’s perception of privacy, Madhyastha explained.
“Ten years ago, if you said that hundreds of millions of users would daily go online and share information about themselves with others, you would be considered crazy,” he said. “But that is precisely what we have today.”
Social networks typically are made up of two types of users: voyeurs and exhibitionists, Madhyastha said. Exhibitionists share loads of content, regardless of the privacy concerns, and really drive the growth of such networks. Voyeurs want to view that content and are responsible for many of the visits to such sites — which attract advertisers and pay the bills. And their numbers are nothing to scoff at: According to Twitter, 40 percent of their users have never posted a single tweet.
And most social media users have little idea of the privacy ramifications online — especially when the rules aren’t the same for every network. On Facebook, users typically
broadcast their information to their Facebook “friends,” but they can unwittingly share that information with others when one of their friends likes or comments on the original post, which can then be viewed by a friend of a friend – even if that eventual end user is a complete stranger to the original poster.
On Twitter, the default setting for every tweet is public, so others can retweet and follow. “Over 90 percent of accounts on Twitter are public,” Madhyastha said. “Only a small fraction of users do choose to protect their privacy at the expense of not growing their social network.”
He added, “An incredible amount of private information gets shared on Twitter. Users are really broadcasting their information to the world, even though most people think they are just sharing information with their friends.”
A Rise in Technology, a Decline in Privacy
Not surprisingly, the decline of privacy reflects the rise of technology in American life. Our phones are now mini-computers, with cameras and a wireless connection to the Internet that enable us to text, email and tweet photos and videos around the Web. And while most social media users know about the dangers of protecting passwords and viruses, many have no idea that there is danger in being trigger-happy on social networks. These problems include everything from personal safety and identity theft to potential difficulties in the workplace from an ill-advised tweet or Instagram photo.
“Some of my close friends post about almost every single thing, even what they had for breakfast,” said Michael Ngo, a junior from the San Fernando Valley majoring in history. “It makes them feel like they are not alone in the world.” Ngo, who only posts to Facebook and Instagram intermittently to keep tabs on friends, added, “I prefer to keep things to myself.”
But for many other social network users, the potential loss of privacy is often outweighed by the desire to connect with other people online, especially because it’s so easy to make connections and maintain relationships. “The ease of accessing these systems definitely makes them extremely popular and hard to control,” Pasqualetti said.
How Private are Our Parts?
The next wave of privacy issues may well center not on what we know about each other but what makes us uniquely us. The U.S. Supreme Court recently voted unanimously that companies cannot patent human genes, a development that holds significant consequences for scientific research. But many other issues remain.
“The nature of human-ness is up for grabs as never before,” Miller notes.
For example, a private company, 23andMe, promises to help people understand their own genetic make-up. (The name refers to the fact that human DNA is organized into 23 pairs of chromosomes.) Just spit into a plastic container, mail the sample to the company and 4–6 weeks later, you’ll be able to “start exploring your DNA,” as the company advertises.
“The privacy of genetic information is definitely going to be one of the big battles over the next decade,” Madhyastha said. “Users will be faced with the hard choice of whether to protect their privacy or reveal this information to providers who offer useful information, such as the diseases that they are susceptible to.”
The federal government has traditionally placed a great emphasis on protecting health care information, Madhyastha said. That means the government may well pass stringent laws to regulate such industries. But, Madhyastha added, “You never know.”