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Summary:

The UK government considers a law that would allow for surveillance of online activity, U.S. universities admit they track what their athletes are saying on Twitter, and employers are asking for Facebook passwords. At this point, advertisers tracking us online is the least of our problems.

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The 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with an idea for a futuristic prison he called the “Panopticon,” a building with mirrors that would allow everyone to see what their neighbors were doing. Thanks to the growth of social tools like Twitter and Facebook and Foursquare, we now have the ingredients for a digital version of this phenomenon, and some are already using those mirrors for questionable purposes: in addition to creepy apps like “Girls Around Me,” the UK is proposing a law that would allow for monitoring of social media (as well as email and text messaging) without a warrant, U.S. universities admit that they already track what their athletes are saying — and a high-school student was recently expelled for comments he made on his personal Twitter account. At this point, advertisers tracking us online is the least of our problems.

In case you missed the furore, the “Girls Around Me” app has attracted a huge amount of negative attention for plotting the location of women on a mobile app by combining Facebook profile information and Foursquare check-in data. Foursquare has blocked the app from using its API, but the developers of the controversial service complain that they don’t do anything different than plenty of other apps such as Sonar.me — and they point out that the information they use to compile the profiles of the women they feature is from the publicly available Facebook profiles of those users.

If it’s public, can anyone track or record it for any purpose?

That’s part of what makes the issues around tracking people through Twitter, Facebook and other networks so problematic: the information is already public by default. With the kind of personally-identifiable data that the government is concerned with for its “Do Not Track” legislation, many people are unaware of what they are sharing — and with whom, and for what reason — when they click on a button or visit a website. But with Twitter or Foursquare or Facebook, users happily post status updates and check-in to places and share that information with the world. How do we determine what is an appropriate use of that information? As one observer said of Britain’s proposed legislation:

If your national or local postal service were to open and check every letter you sent in order to keep a record of whom you correspond with, would you not be outraged? What if the postal service then made all this information available to over 600 public bodies such as local councils and police forces on request?

Under the UK law, the authorities would be allowed to monitor a wide range of social media, along with email and phone calls, to detect potential terrorist threats, etc. But the functional outcome would be to allow for monitoring of virtually anyone’s activity, an idea many people are outraged by, as my colleague Bobbie Johnson notes in his coverage of the reaction to the law. The Department of Homeland Security in the U.S. and other intelligence officials already do this, and they argue the same thing — that they need this power to detect security threats to the government and other institutions — and then they use it to block a trip that some harmless bar-owner has planned because of a joke he made on Twitter.

As a story in the New York Times on Monday pointed out, several U.S. universities admitted that they already employ companies to monitor their amateur athletes, whether it’s Facebook status updates or Twitter messages — one university forces any member of its sports teams to “friend” the coach on Facebook so that he or she can track their behavior. University officials argue that they need this power in order to see when athletes are saying or doing things that might cause problems for the university, but the reality is that it means everything a student does is potentially being monitored.

We can tell advertisers not to track us, but what about our employers?

And it’s not just universities and athletes: Austin Carroll, a high-school student in Indiana, was expelled for a Twitter message in which he used a common expletive — even though the school admitted that this message was sent from the student’s personal account, and didn’t involve the school’s computer network. In an even more serious case, a British university student was arrested and sent to prison in the UK because he posted a racist comment to Twitter about a popular soccer player. And Kimberly Hester, a teacher’s aide in Michigan, was recently fired because she refused to provide officials with her Facebook password, something employers have started to require (a proposed amendment that would make such conduct illegal in the U.S. failed to pass last week).

Part of the problem with all of these cases is that they blur the line between personal and professional, and they also see public vs. private as a binary question when it is anything but. As philosopher Helen Nissenbaum and others have argued, privacy online is something that depends entirely on context — so things that we might want to share with friends in a certain context (like our location) we wouldn’t want to share with strangers through an app like Girls Around Me. And similarly, messages that we post or things we do on social networks with our friends can look very different when the Department of Homeland Security prints them out at a border crossing, or when our employer or the school we attend snoops through our Facebook account.

There’s been lots of attention paid to how we stop advertisers and marketers from tracking our behavior online so that they can serve us better ads — but an even more important issue seems to be how we prevent our governments, employers and other institutions from tracking our behavior and using it in ways we never intended.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Andy Roberts and Luc Legay

  1. Terry Heaton Monday, April 2, 2012

    The difference between today and any Big Brother scenario is that spying isn’t a one-way street anymore. We can and perhaps should be keeping track of those who are keeping track of us, and so there is a form of check and balance that couldn’t have existed in the minds of George Orwell or other dystopian writers. I’m not trying to dissuade the kind of thinking above; I simply wish that we would see that there is real value in two-way openness.

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    1. That’s a fair point, Terry — but do we get any two-way transparency into what Homeland Security or other officials are doing with our social activity, or even our employers? Not likely.

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  2. Let the dinosaurs struggle… we nerds run this show now. Big Brother can’t code.

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    1. Indeed. So we need to make this generation coming up so madly skilled that shadow agendas are swept away before they can even be formed.

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    2. But Big Brother can hire nerds!

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  3. Business of Blogging Monday, April 2, 2012

    Actually your description of the Panopticon is incorrect. The first few paragraphs of the Wikipedia entry are correct. The inmates are visible from a central control point but they cannot tell when they are under surveillance. Because of that, they develop a form of self-surveillance in which they keep themselves in line even when they’re not being watched. It’s a powerful concept but it isn’t the concept that you describe.

    To some degree the social surveillance we’re beginning to experience is increasingly similar to small town or village life where everyone knows your business and anyone could be watching at anytime. It’s rather suffocating and is why so many people throughout history who didn’t want to conform left small towns for big cities.

    My concern is what happens when the global village becomes as suffocating as podunk hollow.

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    1. Thanks for clarifying the principles behind the Panopticon — much appreciated. In fact, your correct definition fits my argument even better than the one I gave, since it depends on people not knowing whether they are being surveilled.

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      1. Business of Blogging Tuesday, April 3, 2012

        Glad to help. That’s certainly how I feel when I’m on the web!

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  4. “[O]ne university forces any member of its sports teams to ‘friend’ the coach on Facebook so that he or she can track their behavior”. Besides being outrageous, this is also revealingly ridiculous. It’s basic stuff to tweak Facebook’s privacy settings, so that (for example) the coach sees less than everyone else, even including the public. More generally, people should know by now how to manage and if necessary obscure their identity online. But apparently they don’t feel the need to.

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  5. 1984 wasnt about a government-run dystopia, it was about a corporate-run dystopia.

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  6. clang_klong_gland Wednesday, April 4, 2012

    >The 18th-century philosopher Jeremy Bentham came up with an idea for a futuristic prison he called the “Panopticon,

    Snore.

    This isn’t grad school. No one cares about Foucauldian analysis. We all know that Foucalt was a fraud.

    Well, at least those of us bold enough to read outside the syllabus and discover J.G. Merquior, who single-handedly established that Foucault was a charlatan.

    If you want to minimize your digital footprint, don’t use social media. Buy a prepaid phone that doesn’t require registration, and use a prepaid plug-in modem that gives you a new IP address each time you get online. Give up a bit of convenience to maintain your privacy. Problem solved.

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  7. The game changer isn’t “facial recognition” but that will be the next logical step. The game changer is “Read.Me”, a voluntary personal summary that can be turned on or off depending on whether you want to be read by others at the moment. It is also not limited by “line-of-sight” which is the major limitation of facial recognition. Note: this does turn the world into to kinds of people — publics and privates. The publics are the free data hipsters who know exploit the fact that nothing is private anymore, so they are willing to be the early adopters of “Read.Me” technology.

    Note: Read.Me technology will at first be voluntary and fun, but as soon as governments figure out that personal RFID identification greatly decreases police and emergency response info-gathering, “Read.Me” RFIDs or some kind of readable, scannable ID will become not just a good idea, but the law. Of course it will first start with employers under the color of security, like the badges worn at many larger companies. Now a security guard (or janitor) can scan the room for people who may not belong there.

    Facial recognition, of course, is involuntary, and it will take a bit more effort to construct profiles on everyone, but the data-mining effort required will be some work. With “Read.Me” however, you are voluntarily posting information about yourself to those within visual range. NOW, when you go into public with these glasses, people watching takes on a whole new meaning. You can read people involuntarily through facial recognition, checking out their Facebook, Twitter stream, blog & Pinterest pics — to help you decide whether you want to meet or not — or you can just keep stalking.

    Now part of people watching is discretion, so people are going to want to have the invisible Google Glasses so that can observe people anonymously. This will create a huge upsurge in Oakley stocks, which I figure to be a Google takeover target within a year. Google Glasses (aka dataoptic scanners) will create a whole new product category equal to, if not surpassing, tablets.

    When “Read.Me” is enabled “On”, you will see the person’s name floating above their head, which is the name they wish to be addressed by when approached by “Googler Glassers”. It might not be their real name — most likely their RFID nickname so that they know that you know them based only by scanning them.

    Side Note: We already use the term Google to mean to look things up. Now we will have to have another term to describe being scanned by a Google optics wearer. Perhaps we will hear the sentence “did you see that chick over there? she just totally -glassed- me!” Maybe someone needs to go to the UrbanDictionary.com and put that entry in there right away!
    Glass, glassing, glasses:
    Meaning: to scan or to be scanned by dataoptic glasses, first introduced by Google, but quickly followed up by the competitive product iGlass from Apple…

    The next iteration gets more interesting, however. When so many adopt voluntary Read.Me transmissions, there will be a need to filter out the interesting from the non. Imagine looking at a crowd and only seeing the “singles” in the crowd, or the Jews, or the above $250K net worth, or the Bentley owners, or dog owners? Yes, filtering will become very interesting, mostly likely opening up a huge business in APIs to integrate scanning with selected interests.

    If, for example, you are into dating, then you could see other members of the same dating groups, such as eHarmony, It’s Just Lunch, or Plenty of Fish. No doubt their programmers are already whipping up wireframes for (dataoptic enabled) personal encounters. By using various memberships, we allow others in our affinity groups to see us, but those who are not “in the club” will never know. You could see whether a person is a MENSA member or in Ashley Madison.

    All this does demonstrate that the backend work for dataoptics is going to be huge. No doubt the glasses alone won’t be sufficient, and there will be PC/tablet/TV/Smartphone integration.

    The facial recognition side will grow as well, but the voluntary nature of FR is more difficult. If your profile is public on Facebook, then everyone will be able to see that. But what if you want a deeper view. Will there be a Law Enforcement (LE) view that let’s cop’s scan a crowd for those with outstanding warrants? How about Sex Offender Registries – will we all be able to see the digital “scarlet letters” SO next to their name as you glance towards them?

    It’s going to be interesting to watch this arena of “View Management”. Can only cops have LE views? How about security guards? Or moms at playgrounds and teachers at public schools? Will teachers be able to view students with a GPA floating next to their name as they look over the class? Will the teachers now know the name of everyone in the school, or just the students enrolled in their classes. Will students be allowed to even where them at all? Will teachers be able to detect whether a student has “Read.Me” enabled during class. Will Cisco create a whole new line of classroom or office “scan jammers”?

    Wow, is this ever going to be a ride…. tellray@gmail.com

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