Opinion: Prism’s ‘Chilling Effect’

In a recent op ed in the Orlando Sentinel I argued that Prism contributes to an overall 'chilling effect' on internet speech in America today and speculated about how this might be changing online privacy. I included references to a recent Times book review by Julian Assange. Here's the link. Enjoy!

Prism: A Handy Timeline

In a recent TEDx talk, I made some points about Facebook privacy and online identity. Specifically, I talked about my research on how college seniors manage their Facebook presence while approaching the job market. I also talked about how, as information becomes increasingly integrated social networks like Facebook may exert a “chilling effect” on free expression, while Facebook itself is an “iceberg” of unseen personal data.
We can fast-forward to last Thursday and revelations regarding the NSA’s Prism program. Here is a handy timeline of what we know:
A leak to The Guardian revealed that a top-secret US court order required Verizon to provide phone records for millions of Americans.
The Guardian broke the story that the NSA had direct access to the servers of major U.S. internet companies, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, PalTalk, AOL, Skype, YouTube, and Apple. Beginning in 2007 a program called Prism allowed the NSA to monitor “email, video and voice chat, videos, photos, voice-over-IP (Skype, for example) chats, file transfers, social networking details, and more,” and this “opens the possibility of communications made entirely within the US being collected without warrants.” The companies denied any knowledge (Greenwald & MacAskill 2013).
Also according to The Guardian the GCHQ (the British equivalent of the NSA) was also getting information from these sources as provided by a service set up by the NSA.
The Washington Post explained that Prism is court-approved and focuses on foreign communication that flows through U.S. servers (Gellman & Poitras 2013). Prism is the greatest contributor to the President’s Daily brief, and 1 in 7 intelligence reports; the NSA is increasingly reliant on the program. Sens. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Mark Udall (D-Colo.) tried to warn Americans about a classified “back-door loophole” for content of innocent Americans.
According to Fisa (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act), communications intercepted by the NSA must be between foreign nationals, but Prism only requires that intelligence agents are 51% certain that one party engaging in communication is a foreigner on foreign soil. The justification, apparently, for the expanded scope of power is that the majority of the world’s internet traffic flows through the United States.
In an interview with the Fold, The Washington Post reporter who broke the story about Prism, Barton Gellman, explained that his source was willing to take the risk because he believed what the NSA is doing “exceeds all reasonable boundaries of privacy or necessity” and that he sees himself as a whistleblower acting out of conscience.
Loren Thompson at Forbes.com claims that Prism “makes sense.”
Will Mason, one of my advisees at Stetson University, decodes Prism the day the story breaks, trumping his teacher in Masons Musings: “The loopholes in this system are even bigger than the plot holes in an M. Night Shyamalan movie.”
President Obama defended recently revealed surveillance programs as “legal and limited.” He claimed that Congress and the Courts had authorized the programs. Senator Dick Durbin, an ally to the President, disagreed, pointing out that only top Congressional leaders were briefed and that the type of data mining implied “pushes the role of government to the limit” (Baker & Sanger 2013).
Google CEO Larry Page and David Drummond, Chief Legal Officer responded to the accusations of government collusion in a blog post, saying they had never heard of Prism until the story broke, nor had they encountered the type of sweeping legal order that Verizon received (Google Blog 2013). Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg responded similarly in a Facebook status update.
The New York Times reported that the tech companies begrudgingly cooperated with requests to facilitate government access to the personal information of American citizens. The companies are legally required to share information with the government in response to a legitimate Fisa request, but they are not required to streamline the process. Twitter opted out, while discussions with Google and Facebook apparently involved the creation of a secure portal (in some instances, on company servers) through which the government might be provided with personal data. So, instead of a “back door,” according to the Times these companies were essentially asked to build a virtual safe “and give the government the key” according to anonymous sources briefed on the negotiations. The Times points out that the tech companies could genuinely claim ignorance precisely because those employees whose job it is to comply with Fisa requests are forbidden from discussing details even with other members of their company (Miller 2013).
Forbes.com noted that The Washington Post softened the language surrounding some of its earlier claims regarding Prism, for example, by emphasizing that the government draws information from tech companies’ servers (Hall 2013).
29-year-old former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden is revealed as the whistleblower for Prism; he is in Hong Kong, but faces an uncertain future in terms of protection from the Chinese government and extradition
Hunter Assistant Professor of Film and Media Bill Herman’s take on the situation at Shouting Loudly, in which he correctly states: “If what Snowden did lands him in prison, being there next to him would be an honor. If blowing the lid off a giant, proto-police-state phone and internet surveillance operation is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” Unlike Bill, I can’t work the NSA into my schedule until next week.
International outcry regarding the NSA’s Prism program; a Pew study shows that 56% of those polled find the NSA’s tracking of phone calls in an effort to curtail terrorism acceptable; 41% did not find it acceptable; a slim majority said the government should not be able to monitor email to curtail terrorism (Hampson 2013).
Montclair Assistant Professor of Media Joel Penney wrote compellingly about how Snowden’s action draws attention to a growing Restore the Fourth Amendment movement on Reddit. In his blog, Viral Politics, he wonders openly if this is the tipping point for privacy to become a major global issue.
Snowden disappears from Hong Kong; Likeable CEO Dave Keppen suggests, “Social media has made the world more transparent in general and that translates into more support for Snowden than you might have seen 5 years ago” (Hampson 2013). This could also bode well for Snowden.
According to Wired.com the rest of the Prism slides are too controversial to publish (Zetter 2013).
House Speaker Boehner denounced Snowden as a “traitor” (Weisman 2013).

Baker, P. & Sanger, D.E. (2013). “Obama Calls Surveillance Programs Legal and Limited.” The New York Times, Friday, June 7. Retrieved 6/10/13 from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/08/us/national-security-agency-surveillance.html?pagewanted=all
Gellman, B. & Poitras, L. (2013). “U.S., British intelligence mining data from nine U.S. Internet companies in broad secret program.” The Washington Post, June 6. Retrieved on 6/10/13 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/investigations/us-intelligence-mining-data-from-nine-us-internet-companies-in-broad-secret-program/2013/06/06/3a0c0da8-cebf-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_story.html
Google Blog. (2013). “What the…?” June 7. Retrieved on 6/11/13 from http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2013/06/what.html?m=1
Greenwald, G. & MacAskill, E. (2013). “NSA Prism program taps in to user data of Apple, Google and others.” The Guardian, Thursday, June 6. Retrieved on 6/10/13 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jun/06/us-tech-giants-nsa-data
Hall, J. (2013). “Washington Post Updates, Hedges on Initial PRISM Report.” Forbes.com, June 7. Retrieved 6/10/13 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/jonathanhall/2013/06/07/washington-post-updates-hedges-on-initial-prism-report/
Hampson, R. (2013). “Is Snowden a traitor or a public servant?” USA Today, June 11. Retrieved on 6/11/13 from http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2013/06/10/snowden-leaks-nsa-privacy-terrorist/2408803/
Miller, C.C. (2013). “Tech Companies Concede to Surveillance Program.” The New York Times, June 7. Retrieved 6/11/13 from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/08/technology/tech-companies-bristling-concede-to-government-surveillance-efforts.html?pagewanted=all
Thompson, L. (2013). “Why NSA's PRISM Program Makes Sense.” Forbes.com, June 7. Retrieved 6/10/13 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/lorenthompson/2013/06/07/why-nsas-prism-program-makes-sense/
Washington Post, The. (2013). "NSA leak: Source believes exposure, consequences inevitable." The Fold. Friday, June 7. Retrieved on 6/11/13 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/video/thefold/nsa-leak-source-believes-exposure-consequences-inevitable/2013/06/07/fb15c0fe-cf94-11e2-8845-d970ccb04497_video.html
Weisman, J. (2013). "Boehner Calls Snowden a Traitor." The New York Times, Politics, The Caucus, June 11. Retrieved on 6/11/13 from http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/06/11/boehner-calls-snowden-a-traitor/
Zetter, K. (2013). "The rest of the Prism PowerPoint is so hot, no-one is willing to publish it." Wired.com, June 11. Retrieved on 6/11/13 from http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2013-06/11/prism-powerpoint-slides

Facebook Privacy & Identity: Exploring Your Digital Self

I gave this presentation at a TEDx event held at Stetson University, where I now teach in the Communication and Media Studies Department.



How do I protect my Facebook privacy? What are some ways my Facebook privacy might be compromised? Is my online identity different from who I am IRL? Should I be concerned about identity theft or getting a job? I tried to address these questions in my research on how college seniors strategically manage Facebook privacy as they approach the job market. I concluded that graduating seniors preoccupied with tagged photos may be missing the bigger picture for the future of online reputation; as information becomes increasingly integrated social networks like Facebook may exert a “chilling effect” on free expression, while Facebook itself is an “iceberg” of unseen personal data. Finally, college seniors expressed some awareness of having a “digital double” on Facebook, evidence, perhaps, of emergent forms of online (cyborg?) identity.

Recommended Reading:

Donna J. Haraway. (1991). Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinventions of Nature. Routledge.

Donna Haraway. (2004). The Haraway Reader. Routledge.

Marian Grebowicz & Helen Merrick. (2013). Adventures with Donna Haraway. Epilogue by Donna Haraway. Columbia.

Cross-Cultural Exchange between India and the United States on YouTube



India and the United States share an important trait: they both produce globally-beloved pop culture. The relationship between these popular cultures is increasingly reciprocal, made possible in part by digital media.
YouTube abounds with cross-cultural mash-ups that juxtapose one country’s images with pop music and cultural icons of another. YouTube exists both as a medium to share and circulate visuals that already exist in the world (i.e. TV shows and behaviors in public space) and as a receptacle for mashes created and performances recorded expressly for YouTube. With 70% of its traffic coming from outside the US, the platform makes random video projects public to a global audience.1 The platform also allows for a degree of anonymity – a contributor’s gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, or native language may not be evident in his or her user name. This anonymity makes pinpointing the direction of cultural exchange even harder.

Since American pop music is ubiquitous, it may not be surprising to see Bollywood dance scenes overlaid with a Michael Jackson song or Indian interpretations of hit American television shows. From an American perspective, it may be slightly more intriguing to see how Bollywood has infused everything from America’s Got Talent to social justice advertising, but even then global Bollywood appreciation is widely recognized. Still, analyzing culturally-mixed digital productions offers some insight into the types of cross-cultural exchange that YouTube makes possible.


The most common type of US/India YouTube video can be characterized as a musical overlay. American cartoon characters Tom and Jerry sing Hindi songs,2 the theme song of the film Titantic is injected with Bhangra beats,3 or a Bollywood dance scene is synched to a Tupac song.4 It is often unclear from which culture the adaptation derives or whether the user’s goal is to make fun of one of the cultures. Regardless of motivation and identity, these are creative mashes; they are not simply dubs to export dominant culture. As such, they are cultural products that demonstrate a desire by the makers (and viewers) to mix things up.


Mashes and cultural appropriations that retool a part of popular culture are more complicated to produce and analyze. In this category, we find examples such as “Simpsons Outsourced,”5 Jingle Bells in Gujarti and Tamil,6 and “Bollywood Thriller."7 Here, two different types of pop culture are not just layered; cultural symbols are actually changed. “Simpsons Outsourced” maintains the aesthetic of The Simpsons, but changes the complexion and accent of the characters. In “Bollywood Thriller,” Indian actors invoke Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in dress, set, and choreography, but perform to Indian music mixed with a vague back beat of Jackson’s song. In a similar vein, there are many new compositions that mix American music and Indian music together. Hip hop remixed with Punjabi beats is a popular combination. These YouTube posts generally have one static image, serving as a type of album cover for the “DJ,” and thus privilege the audio mix. Sometimes these remixes are presented as “face-offs” as in the case of “Ilayaraja vs Titanic”8 and “2-pac: Suka 4 love vs. Soni Soni”:



Even when the videos present cultures in competition, their creation requires the maker to be familiar with foreign pop and to recognize a semblance of similarity.

Columbia’s WikiLeaks Blunder


WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. [Photo: Wired.com]


On Sunday night MSNBC broadcast a story about how WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange threatened to release a quarter million secret documents should he be arrested. Today he turned himself in to British authorities and is being held in London without bail while his organization remains poised to release their storehouse of secret files.


For those who do not know, Assange’s website publishes leaked documents from international governments, and the U.S. has been in hot pursuit since it made public secret files on the war in Afghanistan over the summer. Last week, WikiLeaks made classified U.S. diplomatic communications public. Then on Sunday WikiLeaks released a document that lists over 100 locations worldwide, many civilian, that the U.S. government has deemed to be crucial infrastructure.


As a dissertation student studying Facebook privacy of college seniors as they enter the job market, however, there was a tiny surprise waiting for me at the end of the MSNBC segment—a warning:


“Now even U.S. government officials and future diplomats (that includes college students) have been warned not to read those classified documents.”


As it turns out, the U.S. government has forbidden employees from downloading and reading the WikiLeaks documents, which it still deems as classified. This from the White House Office of Management and Budget, and, according to CNN, the memo that circulated Friday specified that this goes for government and personal computers.


The legal status of the WikiLeaks documents remains in question, particularly considering the sensitive nature of the information, but let us back up a moment to consider the implications of the recommendation for students (which came from Columbia University).


According to Wired.com, last week, the Office of Career Services at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) sent an email to students with a message from an alumnus at the State Department recommending that students neither tweet nor repost WikiLeaks because doing so could hurt future career prospects in government.  


In other words, this alumnus appears to be inviting students to surrender their First Amendment rights — voluntarily. Indeed, as Wired.com reported yesterday, SIPA Dean John H. Coatsworth responded by endorsing free speech, effectively reversing the anti-WikiLeaks guidance:


“Freedom of information and expression is a core value of our institution. Thus, SIPA’s position is that students have a right to discuss and debate any information in the public arena that they deem relevant to their studies or to their roles as global citizens, and to do so without fear of adverse consequences.”


SIPA Professor Gary Sick, a Middle East expert who served under various presidents, added:


“If anyone is a master’s student in international relations and they haven’t heard of WikiLeaks and gone looking for the documents that relate to their area of study, then they don’t deserve to be a graduate student in international relations.”

Furthermore, he characterized the request that graduate students in international affairs not discuss WikiLeaks as “absurd.”

Here is another telling (and disturbing) example of what Victor Mayer-Schoenberg identified in his 2009 book Delete as the “chilling effect” that the future can have on the present in the digital age. Here we have the “absurd” situation of career counselors at an Ivy League institution effectively advising students in international affairs to ignore developments in international affairs.  This event serves as yet another reminder that political content (particularly where it gets memorialized online) is perceived as having a serious bearing on one's prospects for future employment. Just what mechanism leads to this potential self-censorship, as well as other points at which college seniors choose to share or withhold information while searching for work will be an element of my research on Facebook privacy that I hope to keep you updated on here.


To conclude, in a New York Times editorial published yesterday ,  Noam Cohen pointed out that WikiLeaks may in fact be “trying to render governments as brain-addled” as the average teenager unable to keep his or her private and public lives clearly demarcated:


So, without a zone of privacy it becomes impossible for a government to sustain complicated, even contradictory, ideas about relationships and about the world — in other words, it becomes impossible to think. And, imagine that: apparently governments need to think…

These young people, too, lack the ability to say and do dopey things without it seemingly haunting them forever. They may never have bought a book without being profiled. Or queried a search engine without being sized up for an advertisement. Or proffered, and maybe then withdrawn, friendship, without it being logged.


The irony is that the dissonance created by having the backstage of diplomacy thrust into the fore brings government into a similar position as the average teen.


Privacy, Irony & ‘The Social Network’

The Social Network (dir. David Fincher, 2010) about the origins of the vastly popular social network site Facebook opens nationwide today. In this blog entry, I want to comment on the suggestions of sexism that the film brings to light surrounding Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his website, which I believe has a connection to his professed desire for greater revelation of personal data online. We also have to reckon with Mark Zuckerberg’s apparent failure to anticipate the public explosion of his own personal life, despite his philosophy of openness.

Photo by Merrick Morton – © 2010 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.Former friends Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield), far left, and Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), second from right, share a happier moment in The Social Network (2010). Photo by Merrick Morton – © 2010 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Since I am launching a qualitative study of Facebook privacy among college seniors entering the job market as my dissertation, I will approach the movie from a privacy standpoint, and an employment standpoint. The New Yorker recently interviewed Zuckerberg in anticipation of the release of TSN (Vargas, 2010), giving him an opportunity to make a counter-point. Vargas noted that Zuckerberg is “an over-sharer in an age of over-sharing,” but this all ties in with his business model of information revelation for Facebook, which he hopes will one day replace Google as the primary way to perform searches online. Yet watchdog groups like the ACLU and EPIC have repeatedly raised objections to Facebook’s sweeping privacy changes.

All that hype surrounding Facebook is a response to “shifting notions of privacy,” writes Vargas, which conveniently align with Zuckerberg’s personal philosophy (as well as his business interests). The central irony of the film, then, is that (perhaps too obviously) Mark Zuckerberg has fallen victim to the same push for transparency that he championed. First, he has fallen prey to what social network researcher danah boyd from Microsoft Research in New England referred to as a “context collision” (2006) of formerly distinct social worlds. (Only in Mark Zuckerberg’s case this is a context collision of epic proportions!) He has also fallen prey to a kind of informal background check called “grassroots surveillance” or “peer-monitoring” (Tufekci, 2008) on a massive scale, but we will get to that.

For college seniors entering the job market, such collisions can be problematic. The authors of one study, for example, suggested university students and job applicants ask themselves the following about their social network behaviors: “Am I loading information that I want the world to see? Is this really a picture that shows me in the best light? What impression would another person have of me if he or she went through my site?” Essentially: heed the warnings of HR personnel and only post what will pass the “grandma test” (Roberts & Roach, 2009: 111-13).

There are scenes in this film (such as the one in which Mark Zuckerberg and co-founder and ex-friend Eduardo Saverin are having sex in consecutive bathroom stalls) that we can imagine Mark Zuckerberg would not want his grandmother seeing, let alone half a billion ‘friends.’ But Zuckerberg does not need to worry about this, except of course, like Tiger Woods, that it could possibly tarnish his schoolboy brand image. (Then again, a neo-noir depiction of him as a sympathetic anti-hero can’t hurt his value all that much.)

For the rest of us personal privacy online is on the line. To reiterate arguments made by watchdog groups and scholars, the blurring of personal and professional on Facebook is not exactly fair since peer-pressure requires people to participate and most people do not have the time to focus on the minutiae of privacy. Even New Yorker reporter Vargas had a bone to pick with Zuckerberg, confronting the Facebook CEO with the fact that he had his sexuality thrust into the public eye of family and friends when the NewsFeed launched 2006. Zuckerberg responded with a blank stare.

I am thinking of one scene in particular in TSN, though, that casts the accusations of sexism in high relief. Eduardo traces an “algorithm” on a dorm room window after Mark begs him for it. This will ostensibly allow the program Facemash (a predecessor of Facebook that got Mark Zuckerberg in trouble with the Harvard administration, gaining him notoriety on campus) to hierarchically rank women in terms of attractiveness. This image is juxtaposed with the shuttling of young women to a Harvard Final Club.

Author Ben Mezrich, upon whose book The Accidental Billionaires (2009) TSN is based, describes the “Fuck Truck” as “a vanlike bus that traveled between the Harvard campus and a half dozen of the nearby all-girl schools” mainly on weekends (Mezrich, 72). Keeping in mind that this is a fiction, an embellishment, the juxtaposition of the “algorithm” and the “Fuck Truck” is still perhaps the most luridly post-industrial scene in the film, exposing a technologically deterministic face of contemporary dating through social networking. That’s not all. As a critique (made all the more poignant by the ambient score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) it does bring to light two systemic problems (let’s call them biases) with Facebook which are, again, entangled with the personal gibes against anti-hero Mark Zuckerberg.

Point number one: payback for transparency is a bitch. The film critiques inherently sexist, perhaps even misogynistic elements of otherwise ‘neutral’ information architecture.

Cohen and Regan Shade (2008) analyzed the results of focus groups conducted with women in four Canadian cities in June 2007 with a total of 64 participants ages 14-24. The discussion focused on privacy and gender on Facebook. In particular they focused on some of the more troubling aspects of SNS for girls, “particularly gender-based commodification processes latent in Web 2.0 applications” that may limit girls’ use of SNS like Facebook because they have an awareness of proprietary issues of posted content. The focus groups revealed strategies for coping with privacy on Facebook, yet many trusted the site’s privacy settings, and viewed limiting these as the best way to deal with Facebook privacy.

Cohen and Reagan-Shade concluded it should not be surprising that the women in these groups feel disempowered to represent themselves in personally meaningful ways, considering that Facebook’s business model is based on aggregating large amounts of data and monetizing it by selling it to third parties. They also rightly point out that the new technologies of social media and the media scaremongering that they produce are, in some respects, founded in a fundamental imbalance in, on the one hand, largely male construction and ownership, and, on the other, hysteria over the bodies of young females (case in point: MySpace circa 2006). Considering all this, the ‘Fuck Truck’ scene is not only the creepiest sequence in the film, but an allusion to surveillance, biopower and the re-inscription of 20th century white male entitlement for the 21st. What would Donna Haraway (1989) conclude?

Second, and more broadly, according to Hill (2009), leaving FB is justified because it is not only voyeuristic (lends itself to lurking), but “inhuman” in the sense of Lyotard (2004). This is because it so efficiently commoditizes people, not only as potential mates or employees, but in the larger scale of things, rendering individuals as data for marketers. This is the other inherent bias, that of a consumer society. And, as numerous scholars have shown young people are not particularly well informed about how marketers can use their information obtained online. For example, Hoofnagle, et al. (2010) conclude that young people do in fact care about privacy even “while they participate in an online reality that is optimized to increase their revelation of personal data” (20).

Perhaps, similar to what Ridley Scott sought to render in a Blackhawk helicopter, Fincher (Fight Club 1999; Se7en, 1995) envisions the inception of Facebook as a technology of predation. According to Vargas, writer Aaron Sorkin (of “West Wing” fame) minced no words about disliking social media. In neo-luddite fashion, he told Vargas that he dislikes the blogosphere and social media. “I’ve heard of Facebook, in the same way I’ve heard of a carburetor,” he said. “But if I opened the hood of my car I wouldn’t know how to find it.” TSN is an ironic title because it is about the socially awkward creators. (Unfortunately, after his interview with Vargas, Zuckerberg, a big “West Wing” fan, dropped the program from his Facebook likes and interests.) Yet Zuckerberg remains a likeable anti-hero in the film (see the final line of the film: “You’re not an asshole Mark; you’re just trying so hard to be one.”), if only due to the excellent performance of Jesse Eisenberg (Zombieland, 2009; Adventureland, 2009).

Here’s a final word of advice for any soon-to-be college grads: just because your profile is set to “UPENN only” or “friends of friends” does not guarantee the security of your information before potential employers. Your interviewer or potential employer may not have access to your profile, but perhaps one of their employees is a fellow alumnus and he or she can be obliged to surf onto your profile (Brandenberg, 2008). Tufekci (2008) also seemed to think that one of the more realistic (and potentially harmful) effects of social network services (SNS) for college grads would be pre-emptive filtering out of top positions before they even have a chance to be involved in some sort of ‘scandal.’

But the harmful effects of SNS go beyond filtering. “Grassroots surveillance” or “peer monitoring” (Tufekci, 2008) are what really got Mark Zuckerberg. Young people (always concerned with one another’s business) now have information on friendships and relationships at the click of a mouse. As students are compelled to publically articulate personal networks, SNS have a tendency to collapse the multiple identities promised by the early web into a uniform identity that panders to “multiple audiences, audiences that might have been separate in the past. As we leave behind the 20th century, it is almost as if we have come full circle back to the village where everyone potentially knows your business” (35). (Think the glitter graphics of MySpace versus the neat, blue-and-white interface of the standard Facebook page.)

Mark Zuckerberg could have considered the implications of his own “context collisions” and “peer-monitoring” more thoroughly, reading between the lines to perceive the possibility of inferences drawn outside the formal system of IT architectures. Thanks, Facebook, for new levels of paranoia.;)


boyd, d. (2006). Friends, Friendsters and Top 8: Writing Community into Being on Social Network Sites, First Monday 11(12), URL (consulted 25 September 2007): http://www.firstmonday.org/issue11_12/boyd/index.html

Brandenburg, C. (2008). The Newest Way to Screen Job Applicants: A Social Networker’s Nightmare. Federal Communications Law Journal, 60(3), 597-626. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

Cohen, Nicole S. and Shade, Leslie Regan. (2008). Gendering Facebook: Privacy and commidification.Feminist Media Studies,8 (2),210-214.

Hoofnagle, C., King, J., Li, S. & Turow, J. (2010). “How different are young adults from older adults when it comes to information privacy attitudes & policies?” Berkeley Center for Law and Technology. Retrieved on 4/19/10 from http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1589864  

Mezrich, B. (2009). The Accidental Billionaires. New York: Doubleday.

Roberts, S., & Roach, T. (2009). SOCIAL NETWORKING WEB SITES AND HUMAN RESOURCE PERSONNEL: SUGGESTIONS FOR JOB SEARCHES. Business Communication Quarterly, 72(1), 110-114. Retrieved from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.

Tufekci, Z. (2008). Can You See Me Now? Audience and Disclosure Regulation in Online Social Network Sites. Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society, 28(1), 20-36. doi:10.1177/0270467607311484.

Vargas, J.A. (2010). “The Face of Facebook,” The New Yorker, September 20. Retrieved 10/1 from: http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/09/20/100920fa_fact_vargas?currentPage=6#ixzz10kBbqyf7

‘Webcamgate’ shows youth are not apathetic about privacy

Blake Robbins has the honor of being one of the first people on earth to be targeted by a covert institutional campaign of webcam surveillance and expose it. It is a story so compelling that it has appeared in newspapers as far flung as the UK, Australia, and even Bangkok.[1] It happened in the Lower Merion County School District, one of Pennsylvania’s wealthiest, just outside of Philadelphia.

From http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/04/spycamprobe-judge/

Blake Robbins, 15, was asked to visit Harriton High School Assistant Principal Lindy Matsko on November 11 last year in her office, whereupon Matsko accused Blake of “improper behavior in his home” and cited a photo surreptitiously taken on his laptop webcam.[2] According to The Philadelphia Inquirer Matsko actually showed Blake a picture of himself in which he appeared to be taking drugs, but, according to Mark S. Haltzman, attorney for the Robbins family, this was just candy.[3] In fact, it was Mike & Ike.[4]

What has now become “Webcamgate”[5] has led to a class action lawsuit filed on February 11 by the parents and families of the school district.[6] According to information released by the district in the wake of this fiasco, technicians at the school were authorized through a covert program by administrators (such as Matsko) to take pictures remotely using the built-in iSight webcams in the Apple laptop computers issued to students.[7] Once activated on an individual laptop, the “Theft Tracker” software begins snapping photos and recording the computer’s Internet location. The default setting was every 15 minutes.

The 42 photos in question (taken unbeknownst to the students and families) were snapped in fall of 2008 just after the laptops were loaned to kids, and after an incident during which half a dozen laptops were stolen from the locker room during gym class.[8] What sounds particularly disturbing to critics of this incident, most likely, is the oft-quoted line from the lawsuit that many of the images snapped by the webcams "may consist of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions "including "stages of undress."[9]

Notice the “function creep” of the Apple laptops and their iSight cameras. According to an online definition from the Oxford University Press website, function creep is a noun that describes “the way in which information that has been collected for one limited purpose, is gradually allowed to be used for other purposes which people may not approve of”.[10] A more systemic example might be marketing companies that exploit public safety databases for advertising purposes.[11] In the Harriton case, “function creep” has made the school’s upper-middle class families the unwitting playground for an experiment with a new type of surveillance by virtue of the ubiquity of new media.

After the LMSD scandal, some students began covering the iSight cameras on their Apple laptops. From: http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/tag/blake-robbins/

As an EPIC representative put it, if the district thought what it was doing was right it wouldn’t have discontinued the program after it was exposed.[12] In fact the School District turned images taken by the program over to local police on at least two occasions to help track stolen laptops. The District even went so far as to set up a secure website for the police to access the pictures and other information. "Quite honestly, the police knew about these devices," said one lawyer involved in the case. "They were not in the dark about the fact that these computers were being tracked."[13]

This story, and its aftermath, is probably not an isolated incident. Another case of student resistance to over-reaching school administrators has been cited by Jen Weiss, who described a spontaneous protest involving 1,500 students on Sept. 21, 2005, at Baldwin High School in the Bronx, during which students, disgruntled with draconian surveillance measures and bans on personal electronic devices that the school administration had unveiled without consent, marched to the borough superintendant’s office at Fordham Plaza and negotiated with police officials. The terms that were reached were not long lasting, but Weiss describes strategies of resistance to combat the “double bind” of students made to conform to the rules of security officials and subject to humiliation before peers. Weiss claims that these strategies (tactics in the sense of de Certeau) of students are actually relatively invisible micropractices, but that with the ubiquity of surveillance devices they may be some of the few means of resistance left to youth.[14]

There is a seeming irony in such stories of students’ resistance to ubiquitous surveillance of their behavior. In recent years, media critics have been lamenting young people’s seeming lack of concern about personal privacy, an attitude that is supposedly manifested through the posting of overly revealing personal information on Facebook and other social networking sites. Cultural commentators have also drawn connections between acceptance of surveillance, on the one hand, and the increasing popularity of self-revealing reality shows, on the other.

However, as we see in the Harriton and Baldwin cases, perhaps we need to be a bit more skeptical about such broad generalizations. Young people’s attitudes towards privacy and surveillance are probably a lot more complicated than might we know. I am currently working on a dissertation proposal in the hope that I may be able to unravel some of this complexity. My dissertation will be exploring those areas where young people care about privacy and those where they do not. I will also be asking about their privacy practices. In future blogs and as my dissertation develops, I will tell you what I've been pursuing. In the meantime, I would love to hear from anyone studying similar questions.

[1] Hardy, D., Woolever, L., and Tanfani, J. (February 20, 2010). “Subpoena issued in L. Merion webcam case”, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Saturday. City-C Edition, NATIONAL; P-com News for PC Home Page; Pg. A01. 1008 words.

[2] Singer, B. (February 18, 2010). “School Is Spying On Students Via Webcam, Lawsuit Says”. ParentDish AOL Service, 361 words.

[3] Hardy, D. & Farrell, J. (February 24, 2010). “Court order limits talk of laptops at L. Merion meeting”.The Philadelphia Inquirer, CITY-C Edition. PHILADELPHIA; P-com News Local; Pg. B10. 566 words.

[4] King, L., Hardy, D. & Shiffman, J. (February 21, 2010). “L. Merion webcam issue is new legal territory”.The Philadelphia Inquirer, CITY-C Edition. NATIONAL; P-com News for PC Home Page; Pg. A01. 1222 words.

[5] Kinney, M.Y. (February 28, 2010). “Monica Yant Kinney: Another pin in the privacy balloon”. The Philadelphia Inquirer, CITY-C Edition. PHILADELPHIA; P-com News Local; Pg. B01. 644 words.

[6] Kesterton, M. (February 23, 2010). “SOCIAL STUDIES; A DAILY MISCELLANY OF INFORMATION”.The Globe & Mail (Canada). GLOBE LIFE; FACTS & ARGUMENTS; Pg. L6. 866 words.

[7] Hardy, D., Nunnally, D., and Shiffman, J. (February 22, 2010). “Laptop camera snapped away in one classroom”. The Philadelphia Inquirer. NATIONAL; P-com News for PC Home Page; Pg. A01. 1067 words.

[8] Tanfani, J. (March 5, 2010). “Two tech workers sidelined in Web-cam case”. The Philadelphia Inquirer, Friday, CITY-C Edition. NATIONAL; P-com News for PC Home Page; Pg. A01. 932 words.

[9] Leonard, T. (February 19, 2010). “School accused of using webcams to spy on pupils”. The Daily Telegraph (London), Edition 1, National. News, Pg. 17. 336 words.

[10]www.oup.com/elt/catalogue/teachersites/oald7/wotm/wotm_archive/function_creep?cc=globalThe term has its origins in the Gulf War-era military jargon of “mission creep”.

[11]Curry, M.R., Phillips, D.J., & Regan, P.M. (2004). “Emergency Response Systems and the Creeping Legibility of People and Places”. The Information Society, 20. Pp. 357–369. In fact, the authors are concerned that the idea of ‘privacy’ is not exactly adequate to resist function creep because the phenomenon circumvents individual privacy altogether (in that demographic characteristics of neighborhoods can be represented aggregately).

[12] Kinney, February 28, 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

[13] Tanfani, March 5, 2010, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

[14] Weiss, J. (2010). “Scan This: Examining Student Resistance to School Surveillance”, in Schools Under Surveillance: Cultures of Control in Public Education, Torin Monahan and Rodolfo D. Torres, Eds. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. Pp. 213-229.

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