The Concept of Privacy

Sunday, June 9th, 2013

In all the hair-splitting going on about the US government intelligence apparatus having access to citizen activity metadata, I have yet to see a lot of crunching going on about what privacy means. It seems to me that privacy constitutes a relationship first between “I” and “me,” that is my cerebral activity, and how much of it leaks out and captured by another agent. Imagine Basho on his rounds, leaving poems on the side of the road for others to read and, in future, to be recorded in other forms. It’s hard to say whether another traveler is wandering by with a poem by Basho in their head. The observer can’t know what is in a person’s head. If I read a tweet, I don’t necessarily know if the “thought” is actually authentic. I simply take it as a “factual” grain.

This is a cut and paste of part of Twitter’s Collection clause:

Our Services are primarily designed to help you share information with the world. Most of the information you provide us is information you are asking us to make public. This includes not only the messages you Tweet and the metadata provided with Tweets, such as when you Tweeted, but also the lists you create, the people you follow, the Tweets you mark as favorites or Retweet, and many other bits of information that result from your use of the Services. Our default is almost always to make the information you provide public for as long as you do not delete it from Twitter, but we generally give you settings to make the information more private if you want.

The implication here falls on the idea of “choice,” that Twitter makes available “information you are asking us to make public.” Agreeing to the services by provided is something the user “asks” for and therefore the service complies with software. This seems fair, as it’s observed that people freely chose the service and that they understand that “you asked for it.” It would seem fair that the NSA could use this metadata, just like any one else who understand the API.

Here’s the Log clause:

Our servers automatically record information (“Log Data“) created by your use of the Services. Log Data may include information such as your IP address, browser type, operating system, the referring web page, pages visited, location, your mobile carrier, device and application IDs, search terms, and cookie information. We receive Log Data when you interact with our Services, for example, when you visit our websites, sign into our Services, interact with our email notifications, use your Twitter account to authenticate to a third-party website or application, or visit a third-party website that includes a Twitter button or widget. Twitter uses Log Data to provide our Services and to measure, customize, and improve them. If not already done earlier, for example, as provided below for Widget Data, we will either delete Log Data or remove any common account identifiers, such as your username, full IP address, or email address, after 18 months.

This is the sort of metadata any run of the mill database will have spaces for, IP, time stamps, whatever. People agree to this sort of backend storage, assuming they know what a device ID is. If they don’t, they might agree to use and basically lie to the service. Meaning: I agree but I really don’t know what I’m agreeing to because I don’t know what a device ID is. I would assume this data would be interesting to law enforcement. But my authentic question is: is log data private or public information?

In this, I think about passwords and the encryption tools, such as SALT, that make them work. Again, I am assuming that a password is related to a “thought” I might want to keep private, “to myself,” as there’s risk in making it “public.” We know, though, that passwords are stored all over the place. They are also persistently entered, altered, and key-logged by at least two listening systems, else the system wont open. In any event, everyone who uses Twitter possesses a password but it’s strange to think of a password as “private” as it is “shared” in a sort of “middle place,” a limbo, let’s say between private and public, or, as we say in modern terms, a database, which is sort of also like the modern rendering of a nature deity.

None of this, however, gets to a definition of privacy in the context of digital tools. Part of the legal stroke here has to do with “presumptions” of privacy. We have a reasonable presumption that our in-door conversations are none of the government’s business, therefore the government has no “interest” in peeping at us through the window: presumption and interest. Of added complexity is the notion of privacy itself in the linguistic storehouse. We know that digital culture has provided spaces for dispute about the meaning of choice and sharing. It may be that in the future people drop out of the culture and chose to live more selectively. Or people will sanitize their participation, so that all we get on Twitter are links to frog images. But metadata will still grow and accumulate, as data in and of itself is neither this or that until it’s related to something else. Jaron Lanier has an interesting opinion piece in the NYT on the nature of data gathering and manipulation that’s well worth plowing through in this regard.

In literature courses, we can trace how people have viewed the line between private and public ideas. People have probably always known that they can get into a lot of trouble by speaking their minds. The image of the secret police has made vigilance the protagonist to the lordly “eye’s” antagonist. When one signs onto the Verizon contract, one should also know that something physical needs to be stored. If it is a 1, then we can always read the 1, then scramble the 1 to hide its identity. But does this constitute privacy?


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