“Invasion of Privacy” vs. Desire for Surveillance

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Dennis Baron’s blog post, “The phrase of the year for 2013 is ‘invasion of privacy‘” elucidates readers on the state of privacy connected with mass digital surveillance. Baron makes the point that privacy stretches back (in the US, at least) well into the late 19th century with the first mention in an issue of Harvard Law Review by Warren and Brandeis, and moves to discuss recent developments in social media, specifically Mark Zuckerberg’s position of privacy as it connects to the operations of Facebook.

Baron shares that new digital technologies have allowed for an invasion of privacy that perhaps private citizens have not yet fully realized. However, thanks to Edward Snowden’s efforts to inform citizens across the globe about the mass surveillance programs of the NSA, people are hearing and seeing more about surveillance in the news and in social media.

I agree that newer digital technologies like computer cookies, web beacons, widgets, and various other tracking technologies (see “Know Your Elements” provided by Ghostry) have given corporations and governments access to meta-data about individual keystrokes. Thankfully, employees and volunteers and Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) haveĀ  worked to provide resources for people about tracking technologies, as well as engage in legal battles over privacy concerns.

However, I also think that digital technologies like closed-circuit cameras and televisions, biometric devices like facial scanners, license plate scanners, are all part of a larger multi-actor and actant (to borrow from Latour) surveillance assemblage (to borrow from Deleuze and Guattari) where no one corporation or government is wholly responsible for the mass surveillance systems that have been globalized in multiple fields from medicine, education, government, and so on, but rather multiple corporations, governments, businesses, and individuals may all be responsible for an overall surveillance state (that is, if people use any type of device for surveillance purposes).

If we begin to think about this larger multi-surveillance assemblage, then we also need to think about the desire to have so many types of surveillance systems. Simply, what’s motivating people to have so many types of surveillance systems?

Sometimes I think that the argument with regard to surveillance is not so much about invasion of privacy or privacy protection, which are both extremely important arguments that many people from public leaders, policy makers, researchers, attorneys, journalists, etc need to continue to make and engage with, but that the argument rests more with a desire—a desire to constantly watch, to hear, to record, to observe.

If we are to make changes in privacy laws, privacy protection, then I also think we need to address a larger component of this conversation–desire. If we don’t address our motivations for action, then I think we are missing a large part of the discussion on what even motivates us to engage in surveillance, much less to have desire for privacy.

I agree with Baron that the public/private blurring of privacy has already become an issue, especially with online tracking technologies capturing data about individual’s whereabouts on the web.

I think any headway people make in journalistic, legal, scholarly, etc circles about “invasion of privacy” and privacy protection will occur when we can also address the root cause of why people use surveillance tools to begin with–desire.

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Skype Twitter Hacked/BGSU Outlook 360

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Around 3:30 pm today, the Twitter account for Skype (@skype) issued the following tweet (re-tweeted by @AnonyOps):

The Syrian Electronic Army, a group of Syrian youth who use their knowledge and skills to disrupt websites from the West, mainly spread denial of service attacks and alter prominent media or commercial outlets. The group maintains that media outlets and politicians in the West are promoting false stories about what’s happening in Syria.

Since the groups’ first hack in 2011, the members have led very public DNS attacks against several organizations, including The Onion, a gmail account for President Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action campaign, and even the New York Times.

At times, these attacks have had an overt political message. For instance, when the group took control of Organizing for Action’s gmail account, a link to a propaganda video about the United States’ capabilities to mount warfare upon other states appeared on YouTube. Also, members of SEA disrupted the Associated Press account to report that Obama had been injured.

The latest disruption by SEA through the hacking of Skype’s Twitter account, represents an thematic effort to disseminate political messages about companies in the West engaging in questionable practices.

Since Edward Snowden’s disclosures to Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian in May of 2013, the stream of news regarding mass surveillance by not only the American government, but also corporations like Microsoft, Google, Yahoo!, and Facebook have become daily news stories, tweets, blog posts, and so forth.

As someone who began researching surveillance in late 2012, once I learned about the tracking technologies and surveillance practices of certain websites, I became increasingly suspect with engaging or interacting within certain virtual spaces.

In July of 2013, I deleted (not “deactivated” but deleted) my seven-year-old Facebook account. I realized that hundreds of tracking technologies were tracking me across the web, and Facebook was one of them. Facebook used my data to turn a profit.

I have also started the process of moving my personal email account from gmail to the hush email platform.

While I also use a host of alternative sites for tracking the trackers, what concerned me most about the tweet by SEA rested with my connection to my university email account.

Recently, Bowling Green State University upgraded their communications system, including the email system, to Outlook 360. While I have had concerns over the design of the mail system, which my friends can attest to, I have long wondered if my university email meta-data was being tracked in some way.

If there is any truth to the tweet sent by the SEA (and, I do give weight to this tweet given news reports on mass surveillance and tracking technologies), then I find myself in a state of limbo. As much as I am moving away from mainstream technologies that use tracking devices, and as much as I align myself with supporting Internet freedom from mass surveillance, I am still contracted to perform a job, a service, and most importantly, complete a degree. All while, my meta-data, along with tens of thousands of other BGSU faculty, staff, students, and alumni may potentially have their email data tracked and sold.

What to do?