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Privacy’s Personal Powers: Access and Control in the Digital Realm

On April 14, The Washington Post and The Guardian U.S. shared one of the most prestigious awards in American journalism: The Pulitzer Prize for public service.

The newspapers won the coveted gold medal for their collections of stories about the U.S. National Security Agency breaking into Google and Yahoo data centers to collect personal information, mostly phone calls and emails, on multimillions of people around the world. The agency’s global surveillance program, including on Americans and U.S. allies, sparked fervent debates about individual privacy versus national security.

Video Credit: Barton Gellman on reporting on NSA surveillance on YouTube

In a Washington Post story about the public service award, staff reporter Paul Farhi wrote that the newspaper’s Executive Editor Martin Baron said: “In constructing a surveillance system of breathtaking scope and intrusiveness, our government also sharply eroded individual privacy.”

At the epicenter of the National Security Agency’s disputed surveillance practices are two questions: Who has access to people’s personal information? Who controls people’s personal information? The answers depend on conceptual definitions of privacy, according to Helen Nissenbaum in Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life.

In her 2010 book, Nissenbaum offers various definitions of privacy, including three that provide two concepts about personal information: (1) privacy as “a constraint on access” to people’s information, and (2) privacy as “a form of control” of people’s information (p. 70).

Philosopher Jeffrey Reiman: Privacy is “the condition under which other people are deprived of access to either (1) some information about you or (2) some experience of you” (p. 70).

Legal philosopher Charles Fried: Privacy “is not simply an absence of information about us in the minds of others, rather it is the control we have over information about ourselves” (p. 71).

Legal scholar Anita Allen “hybridizes control and access” with a three-tier definition that incudes (1) physical privacy, (2) informational privacy, “control over personal information” and (3) proprietary privacy, “characterized as control over names, likenesses and repositories of personal information” (p. 71).

Besides being central to the National Security Agency debate, the three definitions of privacy also are at the heartbeat of social media. Without people providing personal information, social engagement websites, such as Facebook, Tumblr, Foursquare, Tagged and Instagram, would be void of content.

Knowing that privacy is their Achilles heel, most social-media companies have elaborate policies on who has access and who controls the user-generated content on their websites. For example, Facebook is about to change its privacy settings one more time in an endless evolution.

But do any of those social-media company policies on privacy really matter, given what the National Security Agency managed to pull off right under the noses of the tech titans? Should people just accept that once they provide personal information in social-media realms, they have relinquished access and surrendered control to keeping it private, much like the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions on telecommunications within the Third Party Doctrine?

The ongoing controversy about the National Security Agency’s Internet-centric surveillance practices means definitions of privacy will continue to garner tumultuous debate, especially in regards to access and control of personal information. Many people, especially Americans, don’t equate participating in the digital-media realms with completely forfeiting their right of privacy.

In fact, some American entertainers, such as actors, musicians and athletes, maintain that they retain access and control of their images in the digital realms, even though they are public figures, and their claims are much in keeping with Allen’s definition of proprietary privacy (p. 71).

In her Oscar-winning performance in the film, The Blind Side, actress Sandra Bullock wears an expensive-looking wristwatch, but she has filed a lawsuit against a watchmaker for connecting her name to its product in web-based ads. In a more recent dispute, former Grey’s Anatomy star Katherine Heigl has accused a drugstore chain of using Twitter to violate her right of privacy.

Video Credit: The Blind Side Movie Trailer on YouTube

If Bullock and Heigl can assert on legal grounds that they retain access and control of their personal information, including the use of their images and names, regardless of their public status in the digital realm, then the masterminds behind the National Security Agency’s exposed surveillance program will continue to face challenges about trespassing on millions of people’s personal powers of privacy.





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The Dickensian Flow of Hacker Life

In the opening chapters of Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, E. Gabriella Coleman’s depiction of hackers evoke images of David Lightman, the computer-savvy teenager (Matthew Broderick circa 1983 in the movie, “WarGames”) whose decision to play with a military supercomputer nearly causes global mayhem. Using Coleman’s archival ethnography as reference, the fictional Lightman has the basic attributes of a real-life hacker: Immersed in technology’s geek culture. Independent. Smart. Rule breaker. Inquisitive. Creative.

In the seminal days of hacking, Lightman’s real-life cohorts were all about the free-wheeling, collaborative technological frontier. The male-dominated world of open-source coders captured passionate devotees who were as tenacious about software freedom as they were about achieving “deep hack mode,” (Coleman, 2013, p. 13). In Dickensian paraphrasing of hacker life, it was the best of times; the season of life; the spring of hope (Coleman, p. 61).

But Coleman examines the open-source conflicts comes with the rise of the Internet that ushered in the colossal software industry and reconfiguration of intellectual property laws. Suddenly the geeky teenage hacker dodging his exasperated parents and clueless military types morphs into Stanley Jobson, a convicted felon, master hacker (Hugh Jackman circa 2001 in the movie, “Swordfish”) trying to outmaneuver suspicious federal agents and his shadowy partners in crime.

Jobson, a financially strapped divorced father, ignores his parole stipulations (don’t touch any computers) for a potential $10-million payday. While creating the computer worm to siphon billions from a secret government slush fund, Jobson depicts the ultimate craft of hacking, or “flow,” as he stands in front of a bank of monitors and gets his groove on (Coleman, p. 11). Yet Jobson’s “deep hack mode” is short-lived because one of the movie’s underlying points: computer cracking carries a deadly price tag. Or, in Dickensian lingo: It was the worst of times; it was the season of darkness; the winter of despair (Coleman, p. 61).

In Coleman’s Chapter 2: “A Tale of Two Legal Regimes,” the author examines the technology-and-legal collision that transforms hacking from Lightman’s unwitting delinquent antics to Jobson’s purposeful criminal intent. Similar to Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, the (digital) revolution was just the battleground for the ideological war. The impact of the conflicts between open source and intellectual property laws altered hacking culture, turning collaborative-minded coders (Lightman) into software freedom fighters (Jobson), or as Coleman put it: “the cultivation, among hackers, of a well-developed legal consciousness” (p. 21).

“Many free software developers do not consider intellectual property instruments as the pivotal stimulus for a marketplace of ideas and knowledge. Instead, they see them as a form of restriction so fundamental (or poorly executed) that they need to be counteracted through alternative legal agreements that treat knowledge, inventions, and other creative expressions not as property but rather as speech to be freely shared, circulated and modified,” (Coleman, p. 10).

With hackers insisting that coding is free speech and open source must be left alone, and global technology companies leveraging their power for restrictive intellectual property laws via copyright and patents, the wrangling was ripe for a compromise: Enter Creative Commons, “a media-savvy and well-respected nonprofit that now provides a collection of alternative copyright licenses” (Coleman, p. 83).

In reading about Creative Commons, and before that the evolution of Linux OS, it is apparent that some hackers are willing to seek détente to resolve the ongoing freedom-or-fight situation, so not all of them are deemed legal outlaws, even though Hollywood as made that depiction fairly enticing, just look at Jackman’s Jobson for ultimate in sexy hacker swagger.

However, in the evolution of the Dickensian hacker, a different kind of image emerges: The Black Queen. This was the underground handle of Penelope Garcia, an uber-hacker turned federal technical analyst (Kirsten Vangsness in the TV show, “Criminal Minds”). The fictional CalTech dropout works for the serial-killer hunters of the Behavioral Analysis Unit. She has all the attributes of Lightman as well as Jobson, but she’s a hacker with something extra.

While the TV show landscape is littered with reformed hackers working for their once-time government adversaries, Garcia has something more (besides the fact that she’s the quintessential girlie-girl female with an ultra-flamboyant taste in attire). Sure, she routinely tells her agency colleagues that she adheres to the hacker code. Of course, she uses the ultimate in hacker gear: Linux OS for her digital sleuthing, but what sets Garcia apart is her unrelenting optimistic disposition, even as she breaks into computer servers in the public good. That’s a good thing, right?

The Videos

WarGames Official Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hbqMuvnx5MU

Swordfish Offical Trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yxK0r2ORG9Y

Criminal Minds | Penelope Garcia: http://youtu.be/MalSc-Ei2fI


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The Digital Divide’s Jagged Edges

In reading Susan Crawford’s “The New Digital Divide,” I saw how predictive some parts were, especially about high bills because of “the lack of competition in cable markets.”

And, of course, with the proposed merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable, things aren’t looking too laissez-faire for the average cable customer either. Well, until one takes a deeper look into Crawford is writing circa December 2011, and what is happening in the digital realms in February 2014.

Crawford seems to take the position that home-based high-speed Internet access is like segregated public schools: separate and unequal, making it a digital-technology cause worthy of a movement. I say wait a minute and let’s consider a few things.

First, analog television: The last of the analog-holdouts howled something fierce when full-power TV stations switched to all-digital broadcasts. What year was that? June 2009. But guess what? Most people, which include a great number of African-American and Hispanic households, already had either a digital TV or…wait for it: cable, which provided access to the digital signals.

I don’t think the economic realities for ethnic minority households changed all that significantly between June 2009 and Crawford publication date in December 2011. What does this mean for the segregated-schools comparison? It means that high-speed Internet access is more like expensive designer sneakers. Several people, regardless of income, will spend their money on things that they want, whether or not it makes any economic sense.

Sure, there are some American households without Internet service, mainly because of economics, but lest we forget that nowadays the majority has access to the digital arena? Sure it would be great if there were a computer with a reliable high-speed Internet connection in every home, but that’s probably not happening anytime soon. Remember analog televisions had been around for more than five decades before the FCC pulled the plug, so to speak, just five years ago.

Second, Google and Netflix: On the road to a federal hearing on the gigantic cable merger, Comcast brokered a deal with Netflix to make the video streaming more seamless. This move has colors to quiet net neutrality questions and antitrust sidesteps. And, now there is an emerging player in the digital-divide wars: Google Fiber.

While the Google service is cheaper than what powerhouse cable operators provide, the registration service isn’t free. Yet, Google Fiber is an alternative to no access at all, but Crawford doesn’t mention it, even though the registration service had arrived in Kansas City by the time she published.

Third, the rise of the app: Crawford spends considerable time explaining why smartphones are not the answer to the digital-divide problem, but I think she’s outdated on this point. Today’s high-tech, new media world is all about the app wizard (think Instagram), compared to the dot.com millionaire circa turn of the 21st century. For many home users, mobile devices are replacing desktop, and increasingly laptop, computers.

Using Crawford’s example to expand my point, if there isn’t an app for online for job applications, there will be one soon because there seems to be an app for just about everything. And, lest not forget Wi-Fi. With a decent firewall, public wireless is a viable option for many folks. In other words, if ethnic minorities in the U.S. have smartphones, and according to Crawford they do in considerable numbers, and/or some other mobile device, they are active participants in today’s digital world, and they do not need, necessarily, home-based high-speed access to make Internet connections. The digital divide exists make no mistake, but apps and mobile devices have made the edges of it jagged.

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Brokers in the Bits Bazaar

After exploring all sorts of scholarly nuances behind the phrase, “the medium is the message,” Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis in Blown to Bits bring us to the real: The money isn’t in the medium or the message but whoever brokers access to the bits.

In the opening of Blown to Bits, Abelson, Ledeen, and Lewis state that we’re in the midst of a digital explosion since technology (bits) is intertwined with everything we do. The authors used the 2008 scandal surrounding a former governor of New York to illustrate their point that everything is a bits story, but I couldn’t help but make a more up-to-date comparison in the unfolding bridge-gate saga ensnaring the current New Jersey governor in 2014.

The now infamous traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee is a bits story too since the smoking gun is an email; an electronic message, which even if deleted, is never, really obliterated (Koan #6) and now that seminal message (retrieved via a redacted Freedom of Information request, which by the way illustrates the examples in Chapter 3 effortlessly) has resulted in firings and subpoenas within the governor’s inner circle.

And, in keeping with the authors’ examples, I illustrated another of their discussion points about bits when I inserted a series of hyperlinks into this blog post. In an effort to pass along information about the bridge scandal, I used two different search engines (Bing and Google) to locate news stories about the New Jersey bridge scandal. Abelson, Ledeen and Lewis devote most of Chapter 4 (Needles in the Haystack) to the rise of the search engines, or in the authors’ phrasing “brokers in the bits bazaar.”

Originally, I read stories and watched videos about the New Jersey bridge-gate scandal in the digital editions of the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN and MSNBC. I went straight to these various mediums to consume their messages on the unraveling saga, but the bits story doesn’t end there. In fact, it’s just starting, according to Abelson, Ledeen and Lewis, because none of these major media outlets control the ultimate digital access to their information; that power belongs to the information brokers: Google and Bing.

The open market understands that “information access has greater market value than information creation” (p. 158) because whoever controls the search engine has the power to shape what people see in the bits bazaar, which is the reason Google has a market capitalization of $157 billion versus the New York Times’ $3 billion (p. 158).

Once upon a time, such as in the 20th century, reliable information was assigned to such luddite-like information portals as encyclopedias and newspapers of record (the local daily in most places), but nowadays that job mostly resides with search engines and their endless spiders that crawl across the internet collecting and cataloging an assortment of digital information.

However, too many people are forgetting that just like producers of encyclopedias and newspapers, search engines are created by humans who on their best days might be impartial in creating their algorithms to collect information but nonetheless are always subjective in what they allow consumers to see in their aggregated listings (i.e. Google and China). In other words, humans are not bits, even though they have created an insatiable appetite for that search-engine technology with all its risks and opportunities (p. 15).


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