On Privacy

I got to attend the ALA session “Don’t Track Me: A Cross-Generational Conversation on Personal Privacy” on Monday.

Law Professor Geoff Stone from Univ. of Chicago led a Socratic discussion with 10 high school students. Stone opened with asking students how they would feel about losing a diary they kept on a iPad. “Would you care?” All said they would; several asserted that they believed they had a right to manage personal information.

Stone asked whether managing one’s personal image, hiding information about failures, mistakes, actions at parties, etc. isn’t presenting a false self. He asked whether it’s illegitimate to present a false self to the community or public. That stumped the panel and, I admit, me. Stone wondered whether presenting a polished self that’s better than others and better than you are is something one has a right to.

Then Stone reminded the audience and panel that the constitution only limits the government, not companies or organizations. The topic then moved to the 4th amendment and the question of what is an unreasonable search. How far does the 4th amendment go? Is collecting phone numbers and data on calls a search? If you have a phone, you agree to give the phone company all this information. Why would you be bothered by the government having it? The students struggled with many of these questions.

Then Stone asked about an instance when you tell a friend something that you want to keep confidential. The friend though shares or broadcasts the information. The students who spoke realized that we risk sharing information when we communicate with individuals. The distinction is that in such instances we have choice. With phone data, we don’t.

Stone moved on to the issue of PRISM. The government could collect no data. It has chosen to (more or less*) secretly collect data. Some have said we should have had a public discussion and agreed to allow the government to collect this data. However, Stone pointed out that the government sees their action as taking the middle ground and is better than doing nothing and possibly losing more rights in the long run should terrorism have flourished. Had the government opened PRISM to public discourse, it would not have been effective as such disclosure would have tipped off possible terrorists.

Stone asked the students why so many of their peers disclose so much in social media. One teen mentioned that she’s an activist, but her parents don’t know. Thus she never grants interviews and she always wears masks to protests. Another student described how careful he is with social media and Stone pointed out that his circumspect behavior was more like a 50 year old than a teen.

Stone offered the idea that perhaps we will just learn to put things in a new perspective. By learning to live with less privacy, we might become more used to having our failings exposed through our own gaffs on social media or government surveillance.

Prof Stone has an article on the Snowden story on the Huffington Post website.