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Intersection: Sidewalks & Public Space

Chapter by Melissa Ngo

"The Myth of Security Under Camera Surveillance"


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    New York Times: Watching Every Click You Make

    The New York Times takes a look at the industry of gathering data on individuals and how personal data that is posted online can be used to created detailed profiles of individuals for things such as targeted behavioral advertising:

    WHEN you write a post on Facebook about your sudden craving for blue cheese, an advertisement for gout prevention might suddenly pop up on your page. Post the phrase “bacon tidbits,” and you might get an ad for a book called “Forbidden Lessons in a Kabul Guesthouse.”

    The robots are watching us. They’re announcing to the world that we just looked at Eames chairs on Pinterest and that we’ve listened to Taylor Swift and Conway Twitty on Spotify. [...]

    Granted, some of these invasions of privacy are the result of our not having correctly wrangled an app’s privacy control settings. But when did privacy become a choice rather than a given? And why does slogging through a new app’s voluminous terms of service or figuring out how to activate a site’s privacy control settings sometimes feel as if it requires a graduate degree in tiny print?

    Yes, the Obama administration has rallied for a privacy bill of rights that would give consumers more control over the online data that is collected about them, and many people in the tech industries support a do-not-track mechanism that would let users opt out of having some, but not all, companies keep data about our online activities. But the slightly creepy, Big Brother-like invasions of our privacy continue apace. [...]

    Two individuals have waged especially jaunty campaigns against invasions of online privacy. Michael Devine, a software developer in Seattle, designed Exfoliate, a program that allows you to erase your own posts and comments on Facebook. (The program is very slow and takes about 48 hours if you have 200 friends.) Mr. Devine got the idea for Exfoliate while browsing Facebook before a job interview: “There’s a video of me firing an Uzi and chuckling. It’s from a fund-raiser for a SWAT team member who needed a bone marrow transplant.” Mr. Devine said: “Once people wise up to the existence of a permanent record, they’ll stop using these media — which is unfortunate because these are media that can unite families who are at a distance, and do a lot of other great things. The tech firms say, Don’t impose laws, it will inhibit innovation. But the opposite is true.”

    Fred Stutzman, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University who created Freedom, the program that locks a computer user away from the internet for a specified amount of time, conducted an experiment with two other researchers in 2010. Using facial-recognition software on anonymous pictures of volunteers, Mr. Stutzman and his colleagues were able to identify a third of the subjects by linking to their Facebook profiles. They could also then figure out these subjects’ personal interests and, in some cases, parts of their Social Security numbers. Mr. Stutzman said: “There’s a value to privacy. It’s society’s gatekeeper to the formation of biases.”

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