The End Of Privacy As We Know It

The right to personal privacy isn’t a right that is specifically recognized in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, but it has been a recognized area of the law for decades, as well as a treasured ideal for many Americans.  For many people, the right to be left alone is an important one.

But this is another area where technology is simply changing the game.  Whether it is cookies left on personal computers that lead to pop-up ads that are specifically targeted to your website viewings, search engines that can sift through mounds of news stories, photos, and data in split seconds whenever a name is entered, tracking mechanisms on cell phones, surveillance cameras on every street corner, drones in the air, computer hacking, or listening devices that are routinely used by governmental entities, technology makes the ability to maintain some zone of privacy harder and harder.

20130203_adde1Social media also has had a significant impact.  Anyone who likes the convenience of Facebook as a way to keep in touch with their old friends, family members and colleagues is giving up a piece of their privacy.  And when technology and social media meet, the erosion can become even more pronounced.

Consider the news that a software developer has used the advances in facial recognition software to develop an app that allows you to take a photo of a stranger in a public place and immediately run a search for the identity of that person through Facebook.  It’s called Facezam, and it’s apparently going to launch on March 21, although Facebook is raising questions about whether the software is in compliance with the Facebook privacy policy.  But even if Facebook quashes the idea as to Facebook, you would imagine that the app could be modified to be applied to search through other sources of photos.

It’s creepy to think that random strangers, simply by taking your picture in a public place and unbeknownst to you, could then find out who you are and, if they’re so inclined, track you down.  One person in the story linked above describes that concept as the end of anonymity in public places, and I think that’s right.  If you want to guard against it, you can withdraw from any social media, refuse to get your photo taken, avoid going out in public except in disguise, avoid any travel, and stay in your room.  Those aren’t especially attractive options, are they?

Welcome to the Brave New World!

 

Body Shaming And Social Shaming

Earlier this year Playboy model Dani Mathers got into trouble.  She took a photo of a naked woman in the locker room at her gym and posted it on Snapchat with a snide and mocking comment about the woman’s appearance.

dann_2The reaction to Mathers’ Snapchat was immediate and overwhelming.  She got kicked out of LA Fitness for life for violating a firm policy against photography in locker rooms, and the gym also reported her to police.  She lost a long-standing radio gig.  And Mathers faced withering criticism on social media for “body shaming” an unsuspecting older woman who was just at the gym for an innocent workout.  Mathers apologized, saying that she knew that body shaming was wrong and that the ill-advised posting of the photo was not an indication of the kind of person she was.  And there the story seemed to end.

But now there are reports that the woman Mathers photographed, who previously had not been identified, has come forward and spoken to police to indicate that she would be willing to testify against Mathers, and the LA city attorney’s office is reviewing the case.  Should Mathers be prosecuted for violating the woman’s privacy?  Under California law, taking a photo of someone in a private setting in which they have a reasonable expectation of privacy is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

It’s not an easy question, because Mathers’ Snapchat gibe stirs up some strong emotions. It was a callous display of precisely the kind of airheaded contemptuousness and sense of superiority that normal people associate with the brainless “beautiful people.”  Mathers has all day to work out and stay fit; she makes her living solely on the basis of her appearance.  Most of us don’t have that luxury.  We have to work, and we don’t have personal trainers and dietitians and assistants to help us keep the weight off.  And when we do get to the gym, we shouldn’t have to put up with mean-spirited mockery from the hard body brigade.  On the other hand, though, should hardworking prosecutors be spending time on privacy issues rather than prosecuting more serious crimes?

In this case, I would leave it up to the woman whose privacy was so appallingly violated.  The California law was written to protect her rights, and if she wants to bring charges I think the prosecutor should follow her lead.  She may well decide to be kind — kinder, certainly, than Mathers was in sending her Snapchat in the first place — and accept Mathers’ apology.  In either case, Mathers should be the one who is ashamed.  And we should give some thought to who people like Mathers really are the next time we see some pretty face endorsing a product or a politician.

The FBI Director And His Webcam

The FBI has taken a strong stance on the ability of law enforcement and anti-terrorism concerns to trump individual privacy interests.  Its position on requiring Apple to develop a back door through its iPhone encryption protection is just part of a larger concern about privacy advocates hampering the FBI’s ability to catch crooks and killers.

The FBI Director, James Comey, gave a speech this week at Kenyon College where he sounded many of those same themes.  But then he admitted that, on his personal laptop, he’s put a piece of black tape over the camera so no one can hack into his computer and watch him.  After all, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that somebody, somewhere, might want to watch you through your laptop camera — the FBI itself has developed surveillance software that apparently allows the agency to do just that.

hqdefaultThe notion that the director of the FBI is worried about surveillance on his laptop and put some black tape over his webcam has provoked a lot of reaction on social media, from privacy advocates gleefully saying “I told you so” to paranoid anti-government types seeing Comey’s admission as evidence that the FBI, the NSA, the CIA and the other members of the alphabet soup of American security agencies routinely spy on each other.  And it by  pretty ironic, when you think about it — and pretty funny that the anti-surveillance tool Comey decided to use is a simple strip of duct tape.

But Comey’s reaction also is instructive, and illustrates some apparent hypocrisy.  People who worry about their privacy and governmental overreach are chided for not helping to catch the bad guys and told that if they’ve done nothing wrong they’ve got nothing to worry about — but then even the FBI director takes a basic step to protect his own privacy against unwanted intrusion.  He thinks he hasn’t done anything wrong, and he doesn’t like the idea of somebody spying on him.  He might rationalize it as protection against hacking by a terrorist cell, or a rogue foreign government, rather than concern about surveillance by his own government, but the principle is the same.  If an unhackable iPhone might “hinder law enforcement” in certain circumstances, couldn’t a strip of black tape over a laptop webcam prove to be a hindrance at some point, too?

I’m with the privacy advocates on this one — and Comey’s own actions help to say why.

When Data Security Meets National Security

Syed Rizwan Farook, the male shooter in the December 2, 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attacks, carried an iPhone 5C that was owned by the county public health department, where he worked as an inspector.  After the attack, the county consented to the FBI’s search of Farook’s phone, but it runs on Apple’s iOS9 operating system, which is built with default device encryption — and, after two months of trying, the FBI hasn’t been able to break through the phone’s data security features.

The FBI believes the phone may hold data, such as in contact lists, photographs, or instant messages, that could materially assist in the investigation and potentially identify others, in the United States and overseas, who assisted Farook.  So, what to do?

apple-iphone5c-16gb-att-blue-2The FBI went to a federal magistrate judge, who ordered Apple to help the FBI unlock the iPhone by disabling the feature that wipes the data on the phone after 10 incorrect tries at entering a password.  That would allow the government to keep trying new combinations, without deleting the data.  Apple says only the phone’s user can disable that feature, but the court order requires Apple to write software that would bypass it.

Apple is resisting the court order, saying that such software would be a back door to the iPhone and is too dangerous to create.  “Once created,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said, “the technique could be used over and over again, on any number of devices. In the physical world, it would be the equivalent of a master key, capable of opening hundreds of millions of locks — from restaurants and banks to stores and homes. No reasonable person would find that acceptable.”

National security and counterterrorism specialists say Apple should be a “good corporate citizen,” comply with the court order, and help in the investigation of one of the worst terrorist attacks in U.S. history.  Privacy advocates agree with Apple that the government is overreaching, and argue that the court decision could set a precedent that would undermine the privacy, and security, of everyone’s handheld devices.  So Apple will appeal the court order, and no doubt other technology companies and interest groups will weigh in, in court and in the court of public opinion, about the propriety of the order.

We’ll have to see how the appeal plays out, but for now we can draw some conclusions.  First, Apple’s default encryption system must be pretty robust, if it can withstand two months of probes and hacking efforts by a highly motivated FBI.  Second, in the post-Edward Snowden world, there is a huge amount of mistrust for our own government and an obvious unwillingness to hand them any code, key, or software that could then be used in another mass governmental data-gathering effort.  And third, with cell phones now ubiquitous world-wide and serving as wallets, photo albums, Rolodexes, mailboxes, message centers, internet search devices, and home to countless apps, all in one handy device the size of a playing card, we’re going to see more and more of these collisions between data security and national security in the future.

Terrible Ted’s Voter Shaming

I’m one of those people who think Ted Cruz is not “likable.”  In fact, he looks and often sounds like the kind of guy who is so single-minded about succeeding that he would happily climb over the bodies of his former allies to get to the top.  Anyone who has gone to law school knows that personality type and shudders when they think of it.

twitterSo I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that the Cruz campaign in Iowa would do something like obtain voting data — which is available a matter of public record in Iowa — and then prepare individualized mailings headed “VOTING VIOLATION” and designed to look like official citations from state voting officials.  The mailing lists the name of the recipient and the percentage of times they have voted and gives them a “grade,” and — even worse — names the recipient’s neighbors and gives their voting percentages and “grades,” too.

Iowa’s Secretary of State, Paul D. Pate, has strongly criticized the mailing, calling it misleading. “Accusing citizens of Iowa of a ‘voting violation’ based on Iowa caucus participation, or lack thereof, is false representation of an official act,” Mr. Pate said. “There is no such thing as an election violation related to frequency of voting. Any insinuation or statement to the contrary is wrong and I believe it is not in keeping in the spirit of the Iowa caucuses.”  The Cruz campaign, for its part, pooh-poohs the issue and says that such a mailing is “common practice,” and Ted Cruz himself said he would “apologize to nobody for using every tool we can to encourage Iowa voters to come out and vote.”  (Why does that reaction not surprise me?)

Some people — like the guy who tweeted his mailing, shown above, and declared he was now caucusing for Marco Rubio — have reacted negatively to the mailing, which they think is trying to shame them, in front of their neighbors, into participating in the Iowa caucuses on Monday.  I’m not surprised.  Such a mailing would piss me off, too, and I vote in every election and therefore presumably should get a good voting “grade.”

I think, for Ted Cruz, this kind of mailing strikes at the deeper issue of just what kind of jerk he seems to be.  If Cruz is willing to try to publicly embarrass average people to try to get what he wants, where would he draw the line — if anywhere — if he were elected President?  People like to believe they can live their private lives without being put under a microscope or having their actions held up for ridicule by politicians who are already far too intrusive in our everyday affairs.  Now Ted Cruz thinks it is okay to try to shame people to their neighbors?  If I were an Iowan, it would definitely be something I would think about come caucus time.

Small Talk, Big Talk

The New York Times recently published an interesting article pleading for an end to “small talk.”  Written by a man who is dealing with the end of an important relationship and a plunge back into the dating world, it tells of an experience in Costa Rica that convinced him that we should focus more on “big talk,” and his successful experiments in doing so on first dates and, most recently, in the workplace.

The thrust of the article is that small talk — talking about your commute, or the weather, or the local sports team — is a meaningless time-waster, and everyone knows it.  Why not move directly to the big stuff, and really learn something important about the person you are talking to?  So the writer has taken to asking first date questions like “What’s the most in love you’ve ever felt?” and “What place most inspired you and why?” and, during a business trip, asking a new colleague “Why did you fall in love with your wife?”

Businessteam at a meetingIf this is a new trend in social interaction in America, I’m glad I’m happily married.  I’m also glad I don’t work with this guy.

I happen to think that small talk serves an extremely useful social purpose.  Some people are eager to share intimate details about their lives with the world at large, and no doubt would welcome intrusive personal questions from somebody they just met, but most of us don’t.  If I were on a business trip with a brand new colleague and they asked me a question about how I fell in love with my wife, I would find such a question incredibly presumptuous and off-putting, and I wouldn’t answer it.  Sorry, but it’s going to take a while for me to decide whether a workplace colleague will end up a close personal friend.  And it’s hard for me to believe that at least some women who were asked “What’s the most in love you’ve ever felt?” on a first date wouldn’t groan inwardly, question whether they’ve been hooked up with a creepy potential stalker, and head for the exits as quickly and gracefully as possible.

Small talk allows you to get to know a person before you decide whether to broach weightier topics.  Sure, the substance of the small talk might be meaningless, but the nature of the small talk can tell you a lot about the person across the table.  Does the person have a sense of humor?  Does the person seem thoughtful or thoughtless, smart or dumb, well-mannered or crude?  Is the person so self-absorbed and egotistical that they end up talking entirely about himself?

And that last point is an important one.  People who immediately ask questions about “big talk” topics clearly want to share their own deeply personal experiences; they no doubt ask the pointed questions with the expectation that they will get the same question in return and then launch into their own stories.  There’s a fair amount of conceit in that; the lives of complete strangers just aren’t that compelling.  Small talk prevents me from being awkwardly inundated by the intimate affairs and feelings of people I don’t know.

I come down strongly in favor of small talk.

Rating Everyone On-Line

You can “rate” just about any commercial enterprise on-line, and you can see what other people have to say about those enterprises, too.  So why not a ratings app that allows every everyday person to “rate” every other member of the general populace — whether that person wants to be “rated” or not?

Gee, what could go wrong with that?

Apparently such an app, called “Peeple,” is going to be rolled out in the near future.  It will allow you to post ratings, on a one-star to five-star system, of everyone you’ve known.  As currently configured, the app would allow you to be added to the mix by anyone who had your cell phone number — yet another reason to be circumspect in giving that number out, by the way — and once you’re on the site you’re fair game, whether you’re an attention hound who wants to be reviewed by the world, or not.

What’s the reason for such an app?  Well, some people say it would be nice to have a reference guide that would help them to determine whether to trust someone they’ve just met, but that seems like a pretty flimsy justification to me.  I might pay attention to the overall gist of ratings of a hotel or a restaurant, but are people really going to trust someone in important interpersonal dealings — think of picking a babysitter — because they’ve got one positive review on a mass website from somebody you don’t know?

The real reason for the app seems to be: well, why shouldn’t it exist?  We rate everything these days, don’t we?  And wouldn’t it be interesting to see what people have to say about each other — and, especially, about you?  In a selfie-saturated world, a people-rating site is bound to be appealing to those poor souls who stand at the absolute center of their own little world.  They’ll be flipping to that app constantly, checking to see whether they’ve received a new positive review, and posting positive ratings of their friends to encourage reciprocal ratings of themselves.  Hey, I’m up to an average rating of 4.75 stars!

If you want to be rated by the world, I suppose that’s fine — although I’m guessing that anyone so self-obsessed is bound to get a negative review or two that might jar their healthy self-image a bit.  The real problem is for those folks who would just like to exist without being “rated” by everyone, or thrust into the toxic world of on-line comments.  They’re not offering a hotel room or a meal to the general public; they’re not teaching a class or trying to get you to buy a ticket to see their film.  They’re just living their lives.  Must they really be subjected to “ratings” by people they’ve encountered?

This is another one of those socio-technological developments that seems fraught with peril and destined to produce some serious angst.