“Welcome to a world where Google knows exactly what sort of porn you all like, and more about your interests than your spouse does. Welcome to a world where your cell phone company knows exactly where you are all the time. Welcome to the end of private conversations, because increasingly your conversations are conducted by e-mail, text, or social networking sites. And welcome to a world where all of this, and everything else that you do or is done on a computer, is saved, correlated, studied, passed around from company to company without your knowledge or consent; and where the government accesses it at will without a warrant. Welcome to an Internet without privacy, and we’ve ended up here with hardly a fight.” – Bruce Schneier in “The Internet is a surveillance state”
I misused Snapchat to perform an analysis of how it and similar social media platforms seize our information and deprive us of our privacy. I attempt to dissect our notion of information and how the impenetrable curtain of corporate greed is masked behind progress and innovation through increasingly impressive technology. I end my blog post with my thoughts about my interaction with Snapchat and how it affected me and my idea of public versus private spaces.
We interact with information in two ways: we actively seek it, or it finds us; either way, we’re obsessed with it. This obsession, we could say, stems all the way back to the Industrial Revolution, where humanity’s transcendence into “modern” times rationalized the harnessing of science to overcome nature’s limitations. Thus began to perpetuate the ideas that the more information we have, now predominantly in that we procure through technology, the better equipped we are to remedy the world’s imminent crises and to become increasingly educated, reactive citizens in our day-to-day lives in doing so. However, both of these are not exactly true. Global warming is the easiest crisis to think of, and it, like most others, was enabled by technology – the combusting of fossil fuels. And we react without acting on social media all the time; we read and scroll past the headlines about calamities but pause to watch the latest Tasty video.
In Mobile Interfaces in Public Spaces: Locational Privacy, Control, and Urban Sociability, Silva and Frith argue that digital media has “overloaded” us with information. They quote scholar Richard Lanham on the effect, “‘In an information society, the scarce commodity is not information – we are choking on that – but the human attention required to make sense of it’” (Silva, Frith 26). The stimulation caused by the increase in information made humans develop tools to manage their attention – mobile interfaces that not only cause an “explosion” in data but also alter their perception and serve as filters of public spaces (Sengupta).
BUT IS IT GOOD OR BAD?
Former high-level FBI official Timothy Ryan believes that the Boston bombers were identified by lifting thousands of images and videos off of private cameras and smartphones. While this might seem like finding a needle in a haystack, he says, “‘In every investigation, it’s better to over-collect than to under-collect. To the extent that they had a computer and used it, it [was] a treasure trove of information’” (Stenovec). This was no ordinary sleuthing; it required data mining to look for patterns in the images taken by the people surrounding the bombed area to eventually trace the Tsarnaevs as the perpetrators. Ryan’s extolling of the method emphasizes his, and probably most of his colleagues’, conviction that information is good. In this case, it was because a tragic crime was solved, but something to think about is how data mining, in most cases, is used on the grounds of security.
It’s dramatic but apt to say that information is bad when it’s in the wrong hands. In the words of journalist Bruce Schneier:
…what we do on the Internet is being combined with other data about us. Everything we do now involves computers, and computers produce data as a natural by-product. Everything is now being saved and correlated, and many big-data companies make money by building up intimate profiles of our lives from a variety of sources.
So there lies the inherent flaw in information collection, that it’s exploited with or without our knowledge for capital gain.
There are two points to bring up here. First, information collection at this scale is unprecedented. As a mindful aside, in her discourse of the ubiquitous digital cloud, Allison Carruth highlights that it’s impossible to pin down the tangible effects of data usage because data has grown exponentially; that is, in the past, there was no record of it. Second, using social networking sites, search engines, e-mail, or the general Internet (including access via cellphones) is now commonplace, and as Schneier later points out, we can’t just stop using them because we don’t like to be “spied” on, especially since the full extent of spying is deliberately hidden from us.
SO DO I OWN MY OWN INFORMATION?
We do own our information…technically. Intellectual property laws were significantly changed in the Copyright Act of 1976 when it was no longer necessary for one to register his or her work to protect it. Anything “fixed in a tangible medium” automatically became copyrighted (Boynton). Recent laws protecting copyrighted material on the Internet have so raised the status of intellectual property that court systems and corporations often wrongly equate it with physical property. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the authority to “promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries,” meaning that authors and inventors can profit from their intellectual property in exchange for allowing limited and eventually full public access to it. However, privacy policies for Facebook and Snapchat are nebulous as to whether the information we upload or unintentionally store on their applications is still ours or if our control over it slowly dissipates with time. Snapchat’s Terms of Service states:
Many of our Services let you create, upload, post, send, receive, and store content. When you do that, you retain whatever ownership rights in that content you had to begin with. But you grant us a license to use that content. How broad that license is depends on which Services you use and the Settings you have selected.
Facebook is a little clearer about its intentions but not by much:
For content that is covered by intellectual property rights, like photos and videos (IP content), you specifically give us the following permission, subject to your privacy and application settings: you grant us a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content that you post on or in connection with Facebook (IP License). This IP License ends when you delete your IP content or your account unless your content has been shared with others, and they have not deleted it.
However, in the following line, Facebook says that although IP content is deleted, there may be “backup” copies for a “reasonable” period of time, inaccessible to any entity other than Facebook of course. The ability for corporations to be vague in their regulations about storing and using our information sheds light on our own powerlessness, a key motive for cyber-activist and computer programmer Aaron Swartz who started a campaign against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) of 2011, a bill that would allow the government to censor or prevent complete access to designated websites.
WHO’S IN CONTROL?
In one of his last speeches before committing suicide, Swartz recounted the battle to defeat SOPA from start to finish. A major proponent of the Demand Progress group, Swartz seemed to believe that this was an “us versus them” issue in which the underdogs, a small community of young computer scientists and start-up entrepreneurs, faced the powerful but archaic Congressmen who had an “irrational fear that things were out of control” to prevent Internet censorship in agreement with the First Amendment (Goodman). Referring to the Congressmen as the “enemies of the freedom to connect” and challenging that “they wouldn’t find something they could pin on any of us,” Swartz highlighted that neither the right nor the left wing was to blame specifically since both were interested in the lobbying funds provided by Hollywood and other similar groups.
The idea of powerlessness is further exemplified by media theorist Douglass Ruskoff in the “surrendering” of his Facebook account. He explains, “I have always argued for engaging with technology as conscious human beings and dispensing with technologies that take that agency away. Facebook is just such a technology. It does things on our behalf when we’re not even there…it misrepresents us. It exploits our social interactions.” What we don’t realize is that the end users of these social networking applications and other digital media are the marketing and advertisement companies that want to influence the decisions we make. They pay for us, the product, and by “logging” on, we become workers. What’s scarier is that by mining our big data, the government can even predict for whom we vote, our sexual orientation, or our likelihood for civil disobedience and even terrorism (Rushkoff).
In his paper on networks, writer, computer programmer, and professor Alexander R. Galloway expresses that we’re captured (seemingly from birth), analyzed for our usefulness, and forced to participate in endless data collection:
Today organisms must communicate whether they want to or not. This is essentially why “communication” and “control” are inextricably linked. Organisms are “captured” using any number of informatics codes and rubrics. Clicks are accumulated. Behaviors are mined for meaningful data or tracked for illegal data. Even the genome is prospected for rare or otherwise useful sequences. Today, interactivity means total participation, universal capture.
Snapchat is unique from the other major social media platforms that dominate our culture because it promises to make photos, videos, and messages disappear. The image or video is set to a timer and expires after the timer ends while the message disappears once the chat box is exited. The “erasing” aspect of the application spurs the sending (and receiving) of compromising images or messages, but users fail to realize that just because something is deleted from their phone doesn’t mean that it’s deleted forever. It’s still lurking around on some server.
Snapchat is fallible in two other ways: users can take screenshots of the messages or images they receive and leaks are possible and relatively frequent. In a leak where 200,000 pictures were released, Snapchat distanced itself from any blame, citing its users’ usage of third party apps for the reason of compromise (Lunden). In May 2014, it was the only company to receive one star out of six for how it protected its users’ data from government requests. Conducted by digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the annual survey evaluated more than two dozen companies on issues including “whether they require a warrant before handing over communications and whether they notify their users and the public about government data requests” (Smith). Snapchat’s one star was for its policy of publishing law enforcement guidelines. Around the same time, Snapchat was incriminated for misrepresenting its privacy and security practices to consumers such as transmitting their geolocation when it explicitly stated that it did not access that information (Bautista).
Snapchat recently acquired Looksery, a company that modifies pictures in real time and has begun to introduce comical lenses for its users to don before sending their snapchat. Only after rapper B.O.B. tweeted, “when you realize all the snap chat filters are really building a facial recognition database” did users begin to understand the gravity of their Snapchat usage, that the application did have some startling implications on their privacy.
I chose Snapchat because it’s the fastest source of information; by looking at my friend’s Snapchat story that’s usually accompanied by a geofilter, I know what she’s doing in that moment. Snapchat stories can be glamorous because within those ten seconds, we have to give a performance whether it consists of a selfie by the beach or a party taking shots with friends.
I wanted to completely decontextualize Snapchat and strip it of its usefulness (locating our friends and seeing what they’re doing or showing everyone where we are and what we’re doing) by posting completely useless pictures and videos. Some consisted of me sleeping, brushing my teeth, going to the bathroom, or being hyperbolically philosophical. More than anything, my friends were entertained, but some questioned my sanity, asking if I was alright or needed help. I found the experience hilarious but also elucidating of some of our habits on social media (perhaps I did my own data collection as well).
I was posting personal moments in my life that people wouldn’t normally see. The video of me sleeping was filmed and posted by my friend, and I, alongside my Snapchat friends, viewed myself sleeping for the very first time in my life. Some had seen me sleeping even before I had. Writing this after recalling that moment, I was reminded of Schneier’s summary of the internet as a surveillance state, “Whether we admit it to ourselves or not, and whether we like it or not, we’re being tracked all the time…all of us being watched and that data being stored forever.” What was even more interesting was that even though I was posting these personal videos alongside completely silly pictures (one of an empty plastic cup), my friends were still viewing my story. Even if the information is unrelated to us or plain old stupid, we still want it.
Professor L. pointed out to me that new media and technology reshape, reorganize, and create new environments. I corroded my privacy in the environment I created on Snapchat, and my moments of solitude, happiness, complacency, and pure boredom weren’t mine anymore. Instead, they were everybody’s, my friends and the companies whose servers my face and my voice were filtering through. In doing this experiment, I feel as if I’ve lost some sense of place because I wasn’t necessarily “living” for myself, but rather the friends for whom I needed to perform. I don’t think I can ever disconnect, though. I feel as if data is too far away for me to touch it, and it’s woven so seamlessly into our daily lives that it’s difficult to know when to disconnect and live in visible, tangible ways. Like most people my age, I’m too tied to my media even if it necessarily isn’t mine anymore.
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B.O.B. (bobatl). “when you realize all the snap chat filters are really building a facial recognition database.” 16 Apr. 2016, 1:58 pm. Tweet.
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U.S. Constitution. Art. 1, Sec 8.