DC Public Library Presents: Privacy 101

Ever want to browse the black market online? Or are you just interested in keeping your browsing history private from everyone? Then the DC Public Library’s 10-day series on government transparency and personal privacy is the place for you.

The series, cleverly titled “Orwellian America,” brings together a variety of documentary screenings, live readings, and workshops – all intended to inform the general public about their privacy (or lack thereof) in today’s digital age. Notable events include a seminar about accessing public government information, a live marathon reading of George Orwell’s 1984, and a lesson on using the Tor browser to protect your online privacy. All in all, it appears to be a thought-provoking program, particularly given the hacking and tracking we hear so much about on the news these days.

While the program’s content may not be entirely groundbreaking for a public library – a quick search reveals that the Denver public library holds a similar workshop – what does surprise me is the location. Right down the road from Congress and a few miles from the NSA, the DC library will teach people how to use a browser known mostly for its obscurity and its use for buying illegal goods.

Some people may criticize the program for teaching “bad” people to hide themselves from committing crimes online, and others may criticize the program for contributing to fear mongering and an unhealthy distrust of our government.* However, I think the most interesting issue this program reminds us to think about is: do we consider the Internet to be a public or private space? What should it be, and how should we expect to be treated within it?

In many ways, I believe that a large majority of people (myself included) treat their online access like a private terminal to outside information – the equivalent of being inside your own home and looking outside at interesting things, with the occasional “post” equivalent to inviting others inside to see a poster hanging on the wall. In this analogy, deleting information from your Facebook profile or Twitter feed seems like it should be permanent, equal to taking down that hanging poster so that no one can see it anymore. Unfortunately, we know that the Internet is written in pen, not pencil, and that the digital trail can sometimes never be erased.

What we also know through whistleblowers and leakers is that the U.S. government has been secretly compiling these digital trails, going as far to collect metadata not only for our Internet activity but also for our phone calls. If it already seemed unsettling for other people to be taking pictures and recording all of the posters we hang, then it is surely even more unsettling for our government to be doing the same without letting us know.

If the Internet is a private space, then it seems like all of this watching and recording is an invasion of our agreed privacy. But what if the Internet is a public space? What inherent level of privacy should we expect, and does the level of surveillance depend on what the government does with the information?

Frustratingly, it seems impossible to determine whether the U.S. government’s surveillance produces a net good or net bad. To do so would require comparing things like the lives saved from the thwarting of terrorist attacks with things like the lives crippled by false positives and a general lack of privacy (which I am assuming is a positive attribute that most people want). More frustratingly, maybe we should expect an inherent level of privacy no matter what, just like the way we expect public bathrooms to be free from surveillance cameras. Even then, we have the tough task of determining what (if anything) is the online equivalent to walking in to a toilet stall.

The DC Public Library’s “Orwellian America” reminds me that I know little about my online self and that I know even less about how to form expectations for online privacy in the grand scheme of things. Here is this public institution teaching people to stay more private from public surveillance on channels of questionable privacy in a network with ambiguous public/ private expectations. Confusing. In any case, the public library seems like an appropriate place to start doing some learning.

* Given that everything included in the program is already free and publicly available, you could easily argue that the library won’t be teaching you anything couldn’t already do in, say, a library. You could also argue that the public currently has an unhealthy trust in our government’s respect for our online privacy.

The Te’o hoax: Why we care so much, and why we really should not

The narrative is so beautiful: Girlfriend of mega-football star died of leukemia, and boyfriend carried his team to an upset in her honor. The football star then went on to become the second most dominant player in college.

Why second? Because that’s what actually happened, and frankly, first will just be a bit too cliché.

As it turns out, Manti Te’o’s girlfriend was not real; in fact, the “girlfriend” might had been a boy. Many people are now “vaguely enraged” (phrase borrowed from Kolsterman in his letters to Gladwell) because they ended up on the receiving end of the “just kidding” story of the year.

As of right now, nobody knows whether Te’o was involved in this not-so-malicious hoax. In fact, I made a meme for the occasion!


(I actually think it is also incredibly stupid for trying to dupe everyone, but the meme works out better this way)

So why do we care so much about this?

Gladwell, in his letters back to Kolsterman, described this sentiment very adequately:

Earlier this fall, I read many stories about how Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein didn’t even kiss his wife until they were both on the marriage altar. The public reaction was pretty much, “That’s strange, but I guess that’s nice.” It was just a little romantic detail that was widely believed, despite its superficial implausibility. Nobody thought that much about it (and — as far as I can tell — it’s completely true). But imagine if this had been proved to be a conscious fabrication. People would suddenly be outraged that Klein had lied about something they’d never previously cared about.

And I full-heartedly agree. I think there is even a bit more as to why many people are angry – because we really believed the story.

We believed the story because we love them. We love it when a basketball star overcomes sickness to hit the game winning shot, we love it when a squirrel rallies a team from behind to win the championship, we love it when an Asian basketball player defies underdog status and racial prejudice, and we love it when a football player leads his team to prominence after the tragic death of his girlfriend.

We also believe it because the media is powerful. It is our only way of finding out the “truth” short of going to South Bend ourselves and searching through Te’o’s internet history (oh wait, the media basically did that for us).

Because we believed in this story, we feel betrayed when we find out that it’s not true. This reminds me of a Barney quote from How I Met Your Mother: “People like being lied to. They just don’t like finding out they’ve been lied to.” How mad will we be if we find out that Michael Jordon wasn’t sick at all that game? Or that the squirrel was released on purpose to boost popularity? Or that Jeremy Lin is…um…not Asian?

It’s pretty crazy how much controversy a college football player can stir up nowadays, but really, why is this a big deal? Te’o is just a college student playing for his school. We shouldn’t even be paying that much attention to his personal life in the first place. Why are we giving SO much publicity to him? So what he was dumb and fell in love with a “girl” through texts and Twitter? Even if he did lie, is it worth broadcasting on national news over and over? Whatever Te’o did or did not do, it is better than Armstrong lying about doping, or Reggie Bush taking illegal benefits, or the Saints’ bounty program, or all the DUI and domestic violence stories we read on ESPN.

There aren’t any direct victims here, in fact, about $3,000 were raised for leukemia research in the girlfriend’s name. While it is not ethical to lie (if Te’o did lie), it certainly isn’t ethical either to construct this righteous image of a college football star and tear it apart in front of a national audience. The one thing we can be sure of is that the media is the winner. If there is a story that the media loves more than “new found strength due to death of a close one,” it is the fall of a hero.

Why is it that young adults have to give up their privacy when they choose to play for a popular sport in college? Or that they are assumed to be either flawless or dirty liars? These would not be issues if we just treat the athletes as who they are: college students playing sports. The Te’o hoax is funny and bizarre, but it really doesn’t mean much. We are mad because we bought into the system and it failed us, and if we zoom out to the bigger picture, that is exactly why being sports fans can be so devastatingly heartbreaking, so shouldn’t we be used to it by now?

Separation of Mind and State

Despots and dictators, get excited. Finally, first world countries are helping you out a bit. For so many years, you had to live with just standard torture methods. And while they’re great for extracting confessions, there’s something missing… There’s nothing quite like being able to really prove that your prisoners are trying to overthrow your regime. I mean peace loving power stabilization machine. But fear not, the day you’ve all been waiting for is almost here!

From ripping a person open to using X-Rays and giant magnets, there are a number of ways to find out what is going on in somebody’s head. It’s recently been shown, however, that it is possible to get a glimpse of what is going on in their mind. Scientists at a number of institutions are showing that there are now a number of ways, using various imaging and recording methods along with a good amount of computing power, to peer inside a person’s mind and in some cases, literally see what people are seeing. Similar methods can be used to get a vague idea of what topics people are thinking about or to fly helicopters (albeit in a virtual environment). While these developments are not nearly advanced enough to find out exactly what a person is thinking, they show that what was once regarded as a safe haven is no longer completely impenetrable. So what rights do our own thoughts ultimately have? Will there be a day when simply thinking of something can be illegal? Will businesses use this technology to perhaps make subconscious marketing more powerful? But not all of these technologies are negative-there is the possibility that new medical applications arise from them, or that we finally find out whether O.J. Simpson and Casey Anthony are killers. Thus, perhaps a better question we should ask is how we as a society plan to regulate similar new technologies and protect people from their less-desirable uses. Or, we could just leave the field open and without regulation, like the Internet in many ways is. I may be comparing apples to oranges, but the Internet and the development of atomic energy are similar-one was barely regulated, while the other was heavily monitored. Both have had immense impacts on people around the world, in both positive and negative ways. The government is not afraid of meddling in mind control, as seen here. Perhaps we are better off without the government getting involved (I’m thinking that there may need to be a separation of mind and state…). We can’t have a governing body that can influence the body it derives power from, can we? Clearly, the question of government intervention is a serious one. No matter how this turns out, I’m going to start wearing a tinfoil hat.

Revisiting often questioned TSA practices

A few days ago, the TSA received flack for invading a 95-year-old woman’s privacy beyond the capability of an X-ray machine or a pat-down.

Lena Reppart was one of the three percent of airline travelers pulled aside for a pat down through airport security to fly from Florida to her native Michigan June 18. As if the process of being groped by a stranger wasn’t awkward enough, the security agent encountered a dilemma–Reppart’s adult diaper was full, and they couldn’t let her through the checkpoint without knowing for certain what the liquid was.

To make her flight, Reppart removed her diaper in the bathroom and went through security again, this time without a hitch.

Even more so than 8oz of shampoo or a water bottle, the prospect of a terrorist sneaking a bomb onto a plane through a used diaper seems preposterous and comical, even. But this is what TSA representative Sari Koshetz had to say:

“TSA cannot exempt any group from screening because we know from intelligence that there are terrorists out there that would then exploit that vulnerability.”

I can understand this logic. We can’t just pull aside people who vaguely resemble Osama Bin Laden for “random” screening – not only because that’s racist – but because who’s to say that a 95-year-old, white, American woman doesn’t have a reason to commit an act of terror? The safety of American citizens is obviously important, and if that means we have to check a diaper, then we have to check a diaper.

As much as I value safety, though, I also value privacy – though the Reppart’s screening was in a private room, she still had to discuss her adult diaper with complete strangers and proceed to travel without any underwear. In what other circumstance would that be acceptable?

Continue reading “Revisiting often questioned TSA practices”

I know where you were last night…

I don’t have an iPhone or any other kind of smart phone, not for any real reason. I just never felt the need to get one; I already have a decent cell phone. Now, however, I think I’ve found a reason to avoid them.

Last week, two developers found that iPhones log their users’ locations to a file called “consolidated.db,” each detailed with longitude-latitude coordinates and a timestamp. According to Time magazine blogger Erica Ho, Apple has been collecting this data for over a year in order to better assess where its users need service. Although it seems to be a mild enough excuse, I can’t shake the thought that this is more than a little bit creepy.

Continue reading “I know where you were last night…”

Baby, Baby, Baby…Whoa?!

How many of you are embarrassed by your baby pictures?  (Yes, I mean the one where you are picking your nose).  How many of you would be upset if your parents showed them random strangers?  How about the World Wide Web?

While our generation can still reclaim some dignity by stowing embarrassing childhood photographs and home videos in cardboard boxes buried deep in the basement, babies today are not afforded this luxury.  According to a February 18th New York Times article, 92% of children have “online presence” by the time they are two!

With the advent of Facebook, YouTube, Flickr, and ShutterFly, zealous parents and grandparents load anything and everything onto the internet.

Check out some of my personal favorites:

Baby Corey: Dancer Extraordinaire

ARVE Error: need id and provider

Kittens Girl: Shrieking Storyteller Savant

ARVE Error: need id and provider

David: Future Dentist?

ARVE Error: need id and provider

Continue reading “Baby, Baby, Baby…Whoa?!”