“As private as I can afford”

“This is as private as I can afford.” (William Gibson , Neuromancer 49)

Internet privacy is on my mind — again — amidst AU CIO’s post on face-recognition tech, a Facebook meme about people finding their smartphone contacts lists suddenly all over the social network, and a phone talk this morning with a family member, distressed by an aggressive phone-based phishing attempt from someone claiming to represent Microsoft, warning that “your computer is at risk.”

The would-be phisher claimed to be calling from Microsoft, claimed that the family member’s computer was at risk (of what?), and claimed they’d sent the user numerous online warnings. (Right, I know what those look like.) I think the relative called me for assurance this was indeed a scam. My assurance ensued, righteously: How would Microsoft know anything about a computer at a given household? More importantly, why would Microsoft care? A fully staffed call centre is mad expensive compared to even-daily MS Update notifications. As if that didn’t clinch it, the phisher called back, and when pressed for personnel ID and contact info, spelled out a password for my relation: “F-U-C-K O-F-F.” (Apparently it’s the scammer’s prerogative to get mad at the person who isn’t cheerfully co-operating with the attempted scam.)

"Panopticon" by Zombieite, 8 Jun. 2011

Which is maybe why I was a bit more predisposed to cheer this report that Anonymous wants to kill Facebook. Hey, I use FB all the time. But could I live without it? Easily. (I make a point of doing so every summer.) Part of me is simply curious to see if they can pull it off. Their statement about the operation suggests how deeply Facebook is invested in the military-entertainment complex of personal data mining:

“Facebook has been selling information to government agencies and giving clandestine access to information security firms so that they can spy on people from all around the world.”

It’s the kind of claim, true or otherwise, that so readily (and rightly) rattles Internet users, visitors and residents alike. That report (conflicted as it is) clicked through to another, more detailed article that takes up the questions about privacy that perennially pop up at my institution’s social network got me reviewing all the data I’ve volunteered to the various apps and networks I use. Still as minimally need-to-know as possible. (Never mind the fully public info about me in the Landing or the AU website. Sharing that info is tacitly obligatory, for public accountability and for being a public intellectual, I guess.)

After reading this far you’re already searching for yourself on some of these sites. You’re probably noticing that there are a lot of inaccuracies – there are. Though there is also enough true information to give anyone a coronary.

Sure, I started “ego-surfing” to see where anything on me might be showing up. Thankfully, I didn’t find much at all, and what i did confirmed the article’s point about inaccuracies; and it would seem that a lot of the services mentioned in the article are US-centric. But I don’t see anything at Canada411, which I notice has gone all stalkerish now, with reverse-lookup options. I did find my face, which I don’t much like (but at least I share my name with enough professional athletes, maverick mathematicians, and murderers that it gets a bit lost in the crowd).

But the other thing of interest in the article is what it suggests about the commodity status and future of privacy. On one hand, the article alludes to “the acrimony between privacy pundits and data brokers.” A phrase like this suggests (in a paradoxical semantic twist) that the privacy interest is a public interest, a concern for, say, privacy commissioners and a principle for holding financial interests accountable, and at bay from the citizenry; while the publicity interest is the private interest: that is, it’s the privately-held transnational corporations who traffic in your public information. But on the other hand, the article also mentions a number of entrepreneurial companies like Abine, “a privacy startup in Cambridge that is in the business of deleting individuals from these sites.” (Spoiler alert: deleting your personal info once it’s out there is enormously difficult, however you try to do it — so maybe it’s more about taking preventative measures, as in measure twice, post once.)

Imagining a dystopian near-future that pits “data brokers” against “privacy brokers” is arguably fine fare for SF writers like Gibson or Cory Doctorow, but then again maybe that future’s already here. As connectivity theorist George Siemens so bluntly, hauntingly put it at an AU conference last year, it may just be the case that “privacy doesn’t exist.” Between the ubiquity of data mining by everyone from ersatz Microsoft impostors to political parties, and that of devices and apps that invite you to publicize your every move (thanks anyway, Twitter, but I’m never going to “add my location”), the network society is becoming a surveillance society that, at times like this, makes the panopticon seem less like a model prison than a gated civil society, while the outside world gradually becomes the prison.

Works Cited

Blue, Violet. Anonymous Vows Destruction of Facebook on Guy Fawkes Day.” Pulp Tech [blog]. ZDNet, 9 Aug. 2011.

—. “How to remove yourself from people search websites.” Pulp Tech [blog]. ZDNet, 16 Aug. 2011.

Gibson, William. Neuromancer. New York: Penguin Ace, 1984.

Siemens, George. Keynote presentation. Annual Research Forum, Athabasca U. 27 Apr. 2010.

Cross-blogged from the AU Landing

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