in Misc., Tech

Revisited 01 // Do We Live in Public? An in depth look at modern internet privacy.

Revisited is a series of blog posts in which I share words I have previously written for university, school or old blogs. View all Revisited posts here. Revisited 01 – written for: Professional Topics in Computing (University of Aberdeen), March 2011.


“Privacy is dead – get over it!” Steve Rambam[1]

In recent months, privacy on the Internet has become a huge topic of discussion. Articles, blog posts, discussion groups and newspapers are all conversing the subject with their own viewpoint whilst social networking websites such as Facebook are defending their core values continuously. Some privacy advocates such as Rambam even believe privacy is dead. In order to fully understand the topic of this discussion, lets firstly glance at the definition of privacy.

Privacy – The state or condition of being free from being watched observed or disturbed by other people: she returned to the privacy of her own home. [2]

Privacy is a term that has been used for many centuries and in the modern era of computing it can be used to describe the personal privacy regarding transactions of data via the Internet. At its core however, privacy will always have the same meaning as stated above.

Humans have a tendency to want some privacy whilst at the same time we are very curious beings; we want to know and see things that are unfamiliar to us. Technology has always allowed people to feel more connected to each other and with this, we know more and more information about other people. The newspaper brought global information to people, the telephone allowed for instant information to be passed around and now with the Internet we can find out a huge amount of information about places, news, topics and most importantly: people. All these technologies allow for new ways in which privacy can be breached.

The increased privacy concerns comes because of two main reasons: easier and new abilities to gather information whilst at the same time making it easier to send information. With these two actions becoming less effortful as technology progresses, our personal privacy has sunk to an all time low. This has caused much debate and privacy advocates have quickly gone ballistic. Internet privacy concerns really started to take off to new highs when cloud services started becoming popular. Gmail, a popular e-mail service, opened its doors in 2004[3] and blew everyone away with their free service; a whopping gigabyte of storage at a low price of free. Whilst all things seemed good at first, concerns rose quickly. EPIC (Electronic Privacy Information Center) immediately asked for Google to shut its e-mail service down, stating that it was “an intrusion that must not be permitted to exist”[4]. Many average users may ask why there was a need for concern, thinking a company like Google would surely not read your e-mails! The concern about Google’s e-mail service was brought to attention because of the targeted and automated advertisements that were created alongside e-mails. These advertisements were targeted to the user by scanning the text of an e-mail message and hence creating relevant ads. There is an interesting argument to be made that users will have agreed to the Terms of Service, the Program Policy and the Privacy Policy.  It is often believed that these groups are more like activist groups, trying to ban new technologies and slow down the development of the Internet. Groups such as the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) understood that Google might need to undergo some change, but that a total ban would be ridiculous. Even five whole years later, EPIC was still pursuing their goal but only that time they tried to shut down all Google online tools including Google Docs. Their claim was that the applications were unable to “adequately safeguard the confidential info"[5]. It really does start to look as though EPIC are designing these attacks on Google to get media attention rather than helping consumers.

There comes the debate of trade-off; ones privacy always correlates to many other factors. Having total physical privacy would mean to live far away from everyone else whereas if you would want to live and interact with other people in a city, you would need to trade off some of your privacy. The same applies for the Internet; one could simply not use the Internet and the vast services available on it and live in complete privacy, but that would mean they are missing out on the use of a huge technology. The more someone uses the Internet, the less privacy they have.

In the Google example above, most people feel that the risk is slight and that the trade-off and value from the services that Google provide are worth it. How far are people willing to go for convenience; just how much information will the average person be willing to give up on the internet? It is as though the more time we spend on the Internet, we are quickly exchanging convenience for our privacy.

A service called Futurephone launched in America just a few years after the Gmail hype; the service allowed anyone to make international calls for free. The service gained many great reviews but one key aspect of the business was questionable: how does Futurephone make money? There was no signup required, no name or address was given, no credit card details were asked for. It was as though Futurephone was the perfect telephony service. Only one thing became clear – they must be listening and recording calls[6].

It’s not just on the Internet that our privacy has been sunk to a new low. As banks have become extremely popular over the past century, one might be concerned about the information they have about their customers. Credit cards paint a perfect picture of a person’s lifestyle and a privacy intruder could quickly find out vast amounts of information by looking at these facts. But again, consumers often don’t mind the lack of privacy. Consumers don’t mind Supermarkets knowing their buying habits as long as they get discounts on loyalty cards. They don’t mind being personally welcomed to a website as long as it saves them from logging in again. Add all these pieces of information together and a data miner could build a near perfect user profile of a person. In the end, who really cares if a company knows what food you bought?

Living in public has become easier with the Internet; we can create websites that describe ourselves, have videos and photos of our life but most importantly we can have real time video conversations and streams that allow anyone to watch us live our life.

Dan Brown, a now YouTube partner, started making Internet video logs (or vlogs) from his bedroom when he was still in college[7]. He started making these for fun, simply telling the world how his day was and sometimes having a rant at the camera. He quickly got more views and became “internet famous” and as YouTube expanded they asked him to become a YouTube partner. He started making higher production vlogs and shared more of his life on the Internet than ever before. This progressed for a couple years until he released Dan 3.0, his latest vlog project. The project is an Internet experiment; let the world decide how his life progresses. One could say that his life, through the aid of the Internet, has become completely transparent to the public. The public can see all his actions, decide on what he must do and partake in his everyday life events. The on-going experiment is extremely interesting to watch but as it’s a daily summery being posted, the live aspect is missing.

Reverse back to the early dot-com bubble when the Internet was really starting to take of. An Internet entrepreneur of the name Josh Harris envisioned the future to make full use of the Internet; he claimed that his Internet TV stations would quickly overtake major TV channels such as CBS. Harris decided to try out an experiment called “We Live in Public” in which him and his then girlfriend Tanya Corrin would live under 24 hour surveillance viewable by anyone. The experiment was interesting in many ways; it showed us what the power of the Internet has allowed us to do and how privacy could be stolen away from someone completely but most importantly was the psychological aspect of the experiment. Harris had cancelled “We Live in Public” after he had a mental breakdown and couldn’t cope with things. Is this a sign that humans are programmed not to cope with surveillance? An interesting aspect towards transparency in living is that we may feel more inclined to do certain things when we know we are being watched. We know someone may see a purchase on a credit card, so we may deny ourselves from buying an item. The same applies for the Internet; if the Internet becomes so transparent we may start to psychologically feel as though we are continually being watched and judged on the Internet. This could have serious consequences; we may change our buying habits, our social behaviour, the way we interact with other business, just about every aspect of our life could change if we were under heavy surveillance.

It may not be obvious to many, but there is a good chance that surveillance footage or some sort of information has been put online without your acknowledgement. A big headline in recent months has been Google’s Street View service, a service that allows anyone to virtually roam the streets of our planet. The headlines often included homeowners suing Google claiming that Street View images of their houses violated their property and privacy rights[8]. This sparks an interesting debate and the German court quickly vindicated Google Street View operation in Germany. The court’s reasoning for this was “that it is legal to take photographs from street level” and hence allowed for Street View to be operational in Germany. Many people still are unhappy about this, but the arguments on both sides stand valid; people want their privacy vs. “anyone could just take a picture here”.

So where can someone draw the line? What is acceptable and what should be made illegal? In the end, this comes down to how society; it’s our choice to use a service in the end. Just like anything in society, we build norms and socially acceptable standards and today, most people will be happy about non-personally-identifiable profiling and similar information being gathered as the trade-off for the convenience is only small. Laws have made illegal for companies to share information about customers in many countries, for example in Nevada and Minnesota, the law requires Internet Service Providers to keep information private regarding their customers[9]. To ensure transparency between a business and the user of a website, there are laws such as having a privacy policy written on the website[10].

In the end, this all comes down to the need for a business to make money. For websites to stay online whilst costing nothing to consumers, they need to sell advertising. Advertisements are now highly targeted to users of websites, only displaying highly relevant ads that have a much higher click-through rate than what might be expected from older advertisement on the Internet. There are companies trained to data mine your online behaviour and with this information, they can then go to advertisement companies and aid them in creating these highly specialised ads. All this is made by easy because people simply want convenience; it’s simply much easier to use a free e-mail service provided by Google than setting up your own mail server, configuring ports and account details.

If someone is extremely scared of being public, there are things that can be done to maximise anonymity online. E-mails can be encrypted, allowing only the sender and receiver to understand the message content. Anonymous proxy server networks such as Tor[11] allows users to stay private by tunnelling encrypted traffic through a network of computers and hence their ISP (Internet Service Provider) would not know what website are being visited nor would they know who they are communicating with.

Much has to do with adaptation to change. The world is constantly changing and especially now, with superfast computer chips and silicon technologies moving at a faster pace all the time, change is inevitable. It is only obvious to say that humans are scared of the unknown. We like what we know, and change can scare us quickly. It took the Internet only a few years to reach millions of users; the technology spread faster than the newspaper, radio or television. It has been a huge change to our lifestyle and many people simply do not know what to make of this new era. It is interesting to look at how different generations adapt to the Internet. Many young people do now have a problem with sharing their information on the Internet; sharing videos, photos, their location and contact details are a social standard on networking websites such as Facebook. The older generation are simply not used to this and often find it hard to understand exactly why this shift is happening.

Not everyone is always happy with Facebook however; they are the most criticised website when it comes to privacy concerns. They have often rolled out new features on an “opt-out” scheme; only users who understand the privacy controls good enough will know how to opt out of the new privacy features. In 2007, Facebook launched a new (opt-out) feature for developers of websites called Beacon. This would automatically post news feed updates to ones network on Facebook about activity the user has been undergoing on websites outside of Facebook. The most interesting headline to come out of this privacy debacle is the “Lane v Facebook” case of 2007: a class-action lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California[12]. In this court case, Sean Lane bought a diamond ring as a surprise gift on Overstock.com for his wife. The ring was supposed to be a surprise, but without Lane’s knowledge, hundreds of friends on his Facebook account were notified of his purchase. Facebook saw the feature as a “complete new way of advertising online”[13], but what they hadn’t realised is that they were at that point crossing the line of personal Internet privacy. The idea was clever, but simply failed in execution because our social norms simply don’t allow for such in depth, and quite importantly automated, sharing of information. Some of the acts that were allegedly violated included the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the Video Privacy Protection Act, the California Consumer Legal Remedies Act and also many others such as the California Computer Crime Law and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act[14]. The Beacon feature was pulled from Facebook when they updated their privacy settings in December 2007 and although no money was handed out to negatively affected Facebook users of the Beacon program, a $9.5 million fund for privacy and security was created. The plaintiffs did also get some money; Lane received $15,000. Sean Martin and Mohammed Sheikha received $7500. The other representative Plaintiffs each received $1,000. All of this money also came out of the Facebook settlement fund[15].

So where will the future take us? Will we live in even less privacy? Will we live in public? Users of the Internet will always do what they want. As seen in the Lane v Facebook case about the Beacon program, if a company goes over the top then they will be punished for it. It will always be a difficult decision to state what over the top means, but it is certain that the people will let their voice be heard. In a sense, we’ve always lived in public. We have always physically been visible to other human beings and it’s only personal information such as income, relationships and thoughts that have stayed private and these will always be private if that’s what someone wants. Technology has always made every day tasks easier for us and the Internet has done so in a massive way. The trade-off of privacy and convenience in the case of the Internet has been worth it, but what’s most important is for companies and their websites to become transparent. Education is always key to understand what’s happening and it is a websites duty to make it clear to the user what information is public to the world, public to a friend network and private to just themselves.

The question “Do We Live in Public?” really comes down to how each individual interprets and uses the Internet. Some may remain classical and ignore social networking websites, search engines, et cetera altogether whilst other people won’t mind the trade-off and will happily use the websites. As long as websites have a good transparency and educate the user on their actions, the future should look good.


[1] “Toor2122 – Steve Rambam – Privacy Is Dead – Get Over It"

[2] New Oxford American Dictionary

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Gmail

[4] http://news.cnet.com/2010-1032-5199224.html

[5] http://www.techdirt.com/articles/20090318/0010124159.shtml

[6]Blogger sleuths uncovered its more likely business model: it was exploiting a government subsidy that pays Iowa a few cents per incoming long-distance call. Iowa was sharing the revenue with Futurephone.” – http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=dont-worry-about-whos-watching

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dan_Brown_(YouTube)

[8] http://searchengineland.com/german-court-oks-google-street-view-in-landmark-decision-69174

[9] http://www.ncsl.org/default.aspx?tabid=13463#isp

[10] http://www.ncsl.org/default.aspx?tabid=13463#isp

[11] http://www.torproject.org/

[12] http://blog.ericgoldman.org/archives/2010/03/beacon_class_ac_1.htm

[13] http://www.imediaconnection.com/content/17260.asp

[14] http://docs.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/california/candce/5:2008cv03845/206085/1/

[15] http://www.beaconclasssettlement.com/Files/ByLawAndFormation.pdf

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