Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pagans and Privacy: Email and Networking Sites

"In the '20s and '30s it was the role of government. '50s and '60s it was civil rights. The next two decades are going to be privacy. I'm talking about the Internet. I'm talking about cell phones. I'm talking about health records and who's gay and who's not. And moreover, in a country born on the will to be free, what could be more fundamental than this?"
- Aaron Sorkin, The West Wing

Who owns your data? Anyone with sense would say that it is you but Facebook recently tried to claim that they owned it and got trounced by their users in the process. This issue isn't dead; it will rise, zombi-like, again and again until some future court case decides it. (1) I think that Zack Stern said it best when it wrote this in P.C. World:

Social-networking sites can be excellent ways to communicate... But Facebook reminds us that these sites aren't your friends, they aren't tools to solve problems, and they aren't a bunch of kids trying to make something cool. They're cold, unfeeling businesses. Businesses exist to make money. So take a close look at the terms, especially when the services are free. Sometimes, cost-free can be expensive.
I am a Pagan person who works in the wider world. There are places where I can let my spiritual practice be known and places where I cannot, lest I loose my effectiveness in venues where I do good work. For this and other reasons, I value my privacy.

As a private person and as a woman of a certain age, I am frankly mystified by what information young people will give out about themselves without (it seems) thinking too much about it. As Emily Nussbaum notes, their motto seems to be: Say Everything.

Talking to her the night before, I had liked Kitty: She was warm and funny and humble...but reading her Livejournal, I feel thrown off. Some of it makes me wince. Much of it is witty and insightful. Mainly, I feel bizarrely protective of her, someone I’ve met once—she seems so exposed. And that feeling makes me feel very, very old.

...It’s been a long time since there was a true generation gap, perhaps 50 years—you have to go back to the early years of rock and roll, when old people still talked about “jungle rhythms.” Everything associated with that music and its greasy, shaggy culture felt baffling and divisive, from the crude slang to the dirty thoughts it was rumored to trigger in little girls. That musical divide has all but disappeared. But in the past ten years, a new set of values has sneaked in to take its place, erecting another barrier between young and old. And as it did in the fifties, the older generation has responded with a disgusted, dismissive squawk. It goes something like this:

Kids today. They have no sense of shame. They have no sense of privacy. They are show-offs, fame whores, pornographic little loons who post their diaries, their phone numbers, their stupid poetry—for God’s sake, their dirty photos!—online. They have virtual friends instead of real ones. They talk in illiterate instant messages. They are interested only in attention—and yet they have zero attention span, flitting like hummingbirds from one virtual stage to another.

...When I was in high school, you’d have to be a megalomaniac or the most popular kid around to think of yourself as having a fan base. But people 25 and under are just being realistic when they think of themselves that way, says media researcher Danah Boyd, who calls the phenomenon “invisible audiences.” Since their early adolescence, they’ve learned to modulate their voice to address a set of listeners that may shrink or expand at any time: talking to one friend via instant message (who could cut-and-paste the transcript), addressing an e-mail distribution list (archived and accessible years later), arguing with someone on a posting board (anonymous, semi-anonymous, then linked to by a snarky blog). It’s a form of communication that requires a person to be constantly aware that anything you say can and will be used against you, but somehow not to mind.

(This is a useful article, full of cultural insight. Read the whole thing.)

Some differing views on privacy are generational, it's true, but some of this comes down to having healthy boundaries and using common sense. I worry that what some folks choose share about themselves now will someday bite them on the behind.

What Do They Know and Why Do They Want To Know It?

I know, without liking it one bit, that whatever I write in private emails and in on-line groups may be read by people to whom they are not addressed, and they will do so, legally in most cases, and without my permission. Knowing that, I try to use caution and some common sense and I don't post anything I
really want kept private. I do not use Facebook, nor will I. I'm careful in other ways, as well.

Charlie Rose recently went to Silicon Valley and did a series of interviews with the movers and shakers there, including Marissa Mayer, Vice President of Search Products and User Information at Google. The bogger at Bleachblog was struck by the same moment that caught my attention, a casual comment made by Mayer about who knows what and why:

....Ms. Mayer said something that astounded me; Some specific credit card company knows with 80% accuracy who is going to get a divorce 2 years before the cardholders themselves... Ms. Mayer explained that the whether a person is to stay married greatly affects their ability to pay off debt and therefore affects their credit rating. I wonder who they could sell this information to. Divorce attorneys/ Counseling Services. I can see it now. You get a free pen in the mail from Dr. Staytogether's counseling service offering help for your pending divorce that you do not know about yet but with 80% accuracy will happen in 1.5 years. Amazing.

Ms. Mayers was referring to information contained in a book titled Super Crunchers. If you want a scary read, put down the Stephen King and read that, and The End of Privacy.

Linked In:

I know a good many Pagans who use Linked In for the same reasons that my friend Snakemoon and I do: we have a professional presence in the world and since information on our work is already out there, it's up to us to manage this information, the same way we manage any other part of our working life. Linked In is also a great way of finding a job or hiring when you have one to offer.

Tech Love:

I have worked with tech for most of my adult life. I have often worked in tech and I lived surrounded by technophiles in Silicon Valley for over a decade. One could even say I married into tech. (Hi, honey). I say this so you'll know I'm not a luddite. But I am an informed and cautious consumer, and I tell other Pagans this: What you choose to do in these cases is up to you, but allow me to urge caution. Data Mining is an epidemic and it's growing, along with worldwide Internet use and leaps in technology. It's a business and it is not in your best interest to give your Self away.
For example, Google (which already has privacy issues with G-mail) has recently leaped ahead in this issue and not in ways I like. Arts Technical writes:

Google's newest advertising strategy, behavioral targeting, has finally arrived. The strategy, referred to as "interest-based" advertising, will go beyond current targeted advertising practices and track your Internet usage habits in order to serve an ad that the search giant hopes is better suited for you. This means that, instead of visiting a music site and simply getting music-related ads, you might visit a music site and getting ads for the newest "Cats Meowing Christmas Carols" album—because Google knows you spend 95 percent of your Internet time at Catster.
That's charming if you love cats, but what about your other interests... hummm?

So...What Are You Reading?

Those of you who shop at know that they do the same sort of thing when they recommend a book for you based on your previous searches. Some people find this useful. I find it creepy and intrusive.

Teeny, tiny, tiny, print

...and by the way, they sell that information to other companies. That's how you got on that mailing list. Read the fine print, folks; it matters.



(1) John Svoikla suggests four basic principals for this issue in his article titled What Facebook's Stumble Can Teach Your Company. He goes into some detail (read the whole thing) but these are, in brief:

1. Allow users to own their own content and identify
- Allow? really? look for some court cases on this issue in future.

2. Make all sharing options default to the most conservative setting
- in other words, ask your users to think twice before posting their most intimate details.

3. Create a better infrastructure for anonymity and tracking of content
- among other things, allow the user to remove certain content permanently

4. Don't sneak up on your audience
- be transparent. Let your users know, in clear language, what you are doing and why, and ask for their input.

Related Articles:

The blog that started the uproar at Facebook:
Facebook New Terms of Service: We Can Do Anything We Want With Your Data, Forever.

Think Social Network Blogs Can't Hurt You?
- protecting your health information

For the legally minded among us:
Security vs. Privacy: Reinterpreting the Fourth Amendment

Privacy Concerns: Facebook and Google
- an earlier essay by Yours Truly on this zombie-issue when rose again from the grave in 2008. It has some notes on privacy and G-mail that might be useful and a nifty picture of Maat


1. Facebook: Federal Human Data Mining Program

2. (humor) Facebook in Reality


Privacy International

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Electronic Communications Privacy Act

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse


Makarios said...

Actually, it's no great trick for a credit-card company to predict, with 80% accuracy, which couples will get divorced. Given that about half of all marriages end in the divorce courts, a random guess would result in 50% accuracy. Money issues are a major cause of marital strife, and a customer's spending patterns, compared with known income, can show the beginnings of financial problems, so add another few more percentage points. Your little neice could make the same predictions. Then add a few percentage points for things like expenditure at hotels that are within a short distance from the residential address and other indicators of cheating ways, et voila, 80% accuracy.

Of course, one could always stick to paying cash. Seems to work for the drug dealers.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this. One tends to get lax in the face of so much electronic ways of communicating, but you are so right on. I was reminded of this when I subscribed to something on the net and within five minutes I got a call from my bank asking if this was legitimate. While on one hand, one can say they were looking out for me and a scam, on the other they were watching me to see if I deviated from their idea of my norm.
It caused a moment of paranoia and I thought about what you are saying here and the collection of data which can and will be used against you, not necessarily in a court of law, but in the ongoing propaganda of what is considered "normal" and what the state wants to consider "appropriate" and/or "deviant". This is a new game. Not like the sixties at all.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I'm a little ambivalent about the concern over privacy. Maybe because it's that I lead a relatively boring life, or maybe it's a sense of fatalism I have about these kinds of things. If the worst thing a company will do is try to sell me a product based on my habits, well good luck--I am quite talented at ignoring ads, sales calls or other pitches. It's annoying, certainly, but just doesn't cause great alarm.

There are other uses of my data, however, that would disturb me--restrictions on what I say, where I go, who I associate with and so on. So where I can, I'm choosy about what i share.

Take Facebook. If I've mentioned this already here, indulge me. I guess I'm just old and wise, but I divulge very little there, so I'm not worried. It's a fun diversion and quite entertaining--that's all. For those who can't hold back, however, they'll learn their lesson. If people don't have the common sense not to post nude pictures, well, you can't save them from themselves. It all comes down to boundaries, as you said. And good parenting. True, i didn't have Facebook as a kid, but I was told not to go around broadcasting all your business! Same applies here. The technology makes it tricky, of course, so use caution.

Which is why I use my spirit name, Riverwolf, on my own blog. All that info never goes away, but the alias allows me great freedom. I intentionally don't provide real, personal information. I have to protect myself and my family. If anyone ever goes looking, Riverwolf is merely a phantom. Oh, I'm very real but just on another level of existence, away from consensus reality.

Maybe that's psychotic or childish or whatever, but it works. And if circumstances ever change, I may emerge from the shadows, prepared for whatever consequences come my way.