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Ethical Issues in the Online World

Welcome to the blog of the Internet Ethics program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, Santa Clara University. Program Director Irina Raicu will be joined by various guests in discussing the ethical issues that arise continuously on the Internet; we hope to host a robust conversation about them, and we look forward to your comments.

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  •  Nothing to Hide? Nothing to Protect?

    Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2015

    Despite numerous articles and at least one full-length book debunking the premises and implications of this particular claim, “I have nothing to hide” is still a common reply offered by many Americans when asked whether they care about privacy.

    What does that really mean?

    An article by Conor Friedersdorf, published in The Atlantic, offers one assessment. It is titled “This Man Has Nothing to Hide—Not Even His Email Password.” (I’ll wait while you consider changing your email password right now, and then decide to do it some other time.) The piece details Friedersdorf’s interaction with a man named Noah Dyer, who responded to the writer’s standard challenge—"Would you prove [that you have nothing to hide] by giving me access to your email accounts, … along with your credit card statements and bank records?"—by actually providing all of that information. Friedersdorf then considers the ethical implications of Dyer’s philosophy of privacy-lessness, while carefully navigating the ethical shoals of his own decisions about which of Dyer’s information to look at and which to publish in his own article.

    Admitting to a newfound though limited respect for Dyer’s commitment to drastic self-revelation, Friedersdorf ultimately reaches, however, a different conclusion:

    Since Dyer granted that he was vulnerable to information asymmetries and nevertheless opted for disclosure, I had to admit that, however foolishly, he could legitimately claim he has nothing to hide. What had never occurred to me, until I sat in front of his open email account, is how objectionable I find that attitude. Every one of us is entrusted with information that our family, friends, colleagues, and acquaintances would rather that we kept private, and while there is no absolute obligation for us to comply with their wishes—there are, indeed, times when we have a moral obligation to speak out in order to defend other goods—assigning the privacy of others a value of zero is callous.

    I think it is more than callous, though. It is an abdication of our responsibility to protect others, whose calculations about disclosure and risk might be very different from our own. Saying “I have nothing to hide” is tantamount to saying “I have nothing and no one to protect.” It is either an acknowledgment of a very lonely existence or a devastating failure of empathy and imagination.

    As Friedersdorf describes him, Dyer is not a hermit; he has interactions with many people, at least some of whom (including his children) he appears to care about. And, in his case, his abdication is not complete; it is, rather, a shifting of responsibility. Because while he did disclose much of his personal information (which of course included the personal details of many others who had not been consulted, and whose “value system,” unlike his own, may not include radical transparency), Dyer wrote to Friedersdorf, the reporter, “[a]dditionally, while you may paint whatever picture of me you are inclined to based on the data and our conversations, I would ask you to exercise restraint in embarrassing others whose lives have crossed my path…”

    In other words, “I have nothing to hide; please hide it for me.”

    “I have nothing to hide” misses the fact that no person is an island, and much of every person’s data is tangled, interwoven, and created in conjunction with, other people’s.

    The theme of the selfishness or lack of perspective embedded in the “nothing to hide” response is echoed in a recent commentary by lawyer and privacy activist Malavika Jayaram. In an article about India’s Aadhar ID system, Jayaram quotes Edward Snowden, who in a Reddit AMA session once said that “[a]rguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.” Jayaram builds on that, writing that the “nothing to hide” argument “locates privacy at an individual (some would say selfish) level and ignores the collective, societal benefits that it engenders and protects, such as the freedom of speech and association.”

    She rightly points out, as well, that the “’nothing to hide’ rhetoric … equates a legitimate desire for space and dignity to something sinister and suspect” and “puts the burden on those under surveillance … , rather than on the system to justify why it is needed and to implement the checks and balances required to make it proportional, fair, just and humane.”

    But there might be something else going on, at the same time, in the rhetorical shift from “privacy” to “something to hide”—a kind of deflection, of finger-pointing elsewhere: There, those are the people who have “something to hide”—not me! Nothing to see here, folks who might be watching. I accept your language, your framing of the issue, and your conclusions about the balancing of values or rights involved. Look elsewhere for troublemakers.

    Viewed this way, the “nothing to hide” response is neither naïve nor simplistically selfish; it is an effort—perhaps unconscious—at camouflage. The opposite of radical transparency.

    The same impetus might present itself in a different, also frequent response to questions about privacy and surveillance: “I’m not that interesting. Nobody would want to look at my information. People could look at information about me and it would all be banal.” Or maybe that is, for some people, a reaction to feelings of helplessness. If every day people read articles advising them about steps to take to protect their online privacy, and every other day they read articles explaining how those defensive measures are defeated by more sophisticated actors, is it surprising that some might try to reassure themselves (if not assure others) that their privacy is not really worth breaching?

    But even if we’re not “interesting,” whatever that means, we all do have information, about ourselves and others, that we need to protect. And our society gives us rights that we need to protect, too--for our sake and others'.

    Photo by Hattie Stroud, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

  •  Which Students? Which Rights? Which Privacy?

    Friday, May. 29, 2015


    Last week, researcher danah boyd, who has written extensively about young people’s attitudes toward privacy (and debunked many pervasive “gut feelings” about those attitudes and related behaviors), wrote a piece about the several bills now working their way through Congress that aim to protect “student privacy.” boyd is not impressed. While she agrees that reform of current educational privacy laws is much needed, she writes, "Of course, even though this is all about *students*, they don’t actually have a lot of power in any of these bills. It’s all a question of who can speak on their behalf and who is supposed to protect them from the evils of the world. And what kind of punishment for breaches is most appropriate."
    boyd highlights four different “threat models” and argues that the proposed bills do nothing to address two of those: the “Consumer Finance Threat Model,” in which student data would “fuel the student debt ecosystem,” and the “Criminal Justice Threat Model,” in which such data would help build “new policing architectures.”
    As boyd puts it, “the risks that we’re concerned about are shaped by the fears of privileged parents.”
    In a related post called “Students: The one group missing from student data privacy laws and bills,” journalist Larry Magid adds that the proposed bills “are all about parental rights but only empower students once they turn 18.” Referencing boyd’s research, he broadens the conversation to argue that “[i]t’s about time we start to respect privacy, free speech rights and intellectual property rights of children.”
    While free speech and property rights are important, the protection of privacy in particular is essential for the full development of the self. The fact that children and young people need some degree of privacy not just from government or marketers but from their own well-intentioned family members has been particularly obscured by pervasive tropes like “young people today don’t care about privacy.”
    Of course, one way to combat those false tropes is to talk to young people directly. Just ask them: are there some things they keep to themselves, or share only with a few close friends or family members? And no, the fact that some of them post lots of things on social media that their elders might not does not mean that they “don’t care about privacy.” It just means that privacy boundaries vary—from generation to generation, from culture to culture, from context to context, from individual to individual.
    The best recent retort to statements about young people and privacy comes from security expert Bruce Schneier, who answered a question from an interviewer with some questions of his own: "Who are all these kids who are growing up without the concept of digital privacy? Is there even one? … All people care deeply about privacy—analog, digital, everything—and kids are especially sensitive about privacy from their parents, teachers, and friends. … Privacy is a vital aspect of human dignity, and we all value it."
    Given that, boyd’s critique of current efforts aimed at protecting student privacy is a call to action: Policy makers (and, really, all of us) need to better understand the true threats, and to better protect those who are most vulnerable in a “hypersurveilled world.”


    Photo by Theen Moy, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

  •  “Practically as an accident”: on “social facts” and the common good

    Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014


    In the Los Angeles Review of Books, philosopher Evan Selinger takes issue with many of the conclusions (and built-in assumptions) compiled in Dataclysm—a new book by Christian Rudder, who co-founded the dating site OKCupid and now heads the site’s data analytics team. While Selinger’s whole essay is really interesting, I was particularly struck by his comments on big data and privacy. 

    “My biggest issue with Dataclysm,” Selinger writes,
    lies with Rudder’s treatment of surveillance. Early on in the book he writes: ‘If Big Data’s two running stories have been surveillance and money, for the last three years I’ve been working on a third: the human story.’ This claim about pursuing a third path isn’t true. Dataclysm itself is a work of social surveillance.
    It’s tempting to think that different types of surveillance can be distinguished from one another in neat and clear ways. If this were the case, we could say that government surveillance only occurs when organizations like the National Security Agency do their job; corporate surveillance is only conducted by companies like Facebook who want to know what we’re doing so that they effectively monetize our data and devise strategies to make us more deeply engaged with their platform; and social surveillance only takes place in peer-to-peer situations, like parents monitoring their children’s phones, romantic partners scrutinizing each other’s social media feeds….
    But in reality, surveillance is defined by fluid categories.
    While each category of surveillance might include both ethical and unethical practices, the point is that the boundaries separating the categories are porous, and the harms associated with surveillance might seep across all of them.
    Increasingly, when corporations like OKCupid or Facebook analyze their users’ data and communications in order to uncover “social facts,” they claim to be acting in the interest of the common good, rather than pursuing self-serving goals. They claim to give us clear windows into our society. The subtitle of Rudder’s book, for example, is “Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking).” As Selinger notes,
    Rudder portrays the volume of information… as a gift that can reveal the truth of who we really are. … [W]hen people don’t realize they’re lab rats in Rudder’s social experiments, they reveal habits—‘universals,’ he even alleges…  ‘Practically as an accident,’ Rudder claims, digital data can now show us how we fight, how we love, how we age, who we are, and how we’re changing.’
    Of course, Rudder should contain his claims to the “we” who use OKCupid (a 2013 study by the Pew Research Trust found that 10% of Americans report having used an online dating service). Facebook has a stronger claim to having a user base that reflects all of “us.”  But there are other entities that sit on even vaster data troves than Facebook’s, even more representative of U.S. society overall. What if a governmental organization were to decide to pursue the same selfless goals, after carefully ensuring that the data involved would be carefully anonymized and presented only in the aggregate (akin to what Rudder claims to have done)?
    In the interest of better “social facts,” of greater insight into our collective mindsets and behaviors, should we encourage (or indeed demand from) the NSA to publish “Who Americans Are (Whey They Think No One’s Watching)”? To be followed, perhaps, by a series of “Who [Insert Various Other Nationalities] Are (When They Think No One’s Watching)”? Think of all the social insights and common good that would come from that!
    In all seriousness, as Selinger rightly points out, the surveillance behind such no-notice-no-consent research comes at great cost to society:
    Rudder’s violation of the initial contextual integrity [underpinning the collection of OKCupid user data] puts personal data to questionable secondary, social use. The use is questionable because privacy isn’t only about protecting personal information. People also have privacy interests in being able to communicate with others without feeling anxious about being excessively monitored. … [T]he resulting apprehension inhibits speech, stunts personal growth, and possibly even disinclines people from experimenting with politically relevant ideas.
    With every book subtitled “Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking),” we, the real we, become more weary, more likely to assume that someone’s always looking. And as many members of societies that have lived with excessive surveillance have attested, that’s not a path to achieving the good life.
    Photo by Henning Muhlinghaus, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.


  •  Who (or What) Is Reading Whom: An Ongoing Metamorphosis

    Thursday, Oct. 23, 2014
    If you haven’t already read the Wall Street Journal article titled “Your E-Book Is Reading You,” published in 2012, it’s well worth your time. It might even be worth a second read, since our understanding of many Internet-related issues has changed substantially since 2012.
    I linked to that article in a short piece that I wrote, which was published yesterday in Re/Code: “Metamorphosis.”  I hope you’ll read that, too—and we’d love to get your comments on that story either at Re/Code or in the Comments section here!
    And finally, just a few days ago, a new paper by Jules Polonetsky and Omer Tene (both from the Future of Privacy Forum) was released through SSRN: “Who Is Reading Whom Now: Privacy in Education from Books to MOOCs.” This is no bite-sized exploration, but an extensive overview of the promises and challenges of technology-driven innovations in education—including the ethical implications of the uses of both “small data” and “big data” in this particular context.
    To play with yet another title—there are significant and ongoing shifts in “the way we read now”…

    Photo by Jose Antonio Alonso, used without modification under a Creative Commons license.

  •  Privacy Tradeoffs Online

    Tuesday, Apr. 2, 2013

    New technologies often bring both benefits and unintended consequences.  The same is true of laws aimed at new technologies.  In this brief clip, NetApp's Executive Chairman Dan Warmenhoven discusses the development of GPS-tracking technology and the ethical issues associated with the aggregation of GPS data into large databases.  Using HIPAA as an example, he then argues that data protection efforts can go too far, leaving us with inefficient outcomes.  How do we strike the right balance between benefits and harms?