What is Being Lost

Surveilence_camerasEvery few weeks I read something new about privacy—and when I say “about privacy,” that is actually a very strange way to put it, because these stories are all about new places where we lack privacy. We call them privacy stories, but they are really about the encroachment of non-privacy on an ill-defined negative space. Reading these stories is like walking down the street alone, and then hearing footsteps behind you. You didn’t consciously expect to be alone, but it is still a bit startling and unnerving to discover you are not.

The most recent of these stories, for me, is an episode of Radiolab, about an aircraft-based surveillance system developed for the military, and what happened when entrepreneurs brought it to Dayton, Ohio. It’s fascinating, and worth a listen. At one point in the episode, Jad Abumrad says: “Here’s my problem with this, with all of these privacy stories. It’s like when you’re talking about these technologies, the advantages are always so concrete, and the tradeoffs always feel so abstract. I feel like there is something being lost here, but I can never quite put my finger on it.”

I feel that way, too, except I think I can put my finger exactly on what is being lost. What each of these technologies is doing is removing gradations of privacy. They are changing privacy from a spectrum to a binary state.

It isn’t surprising that we can’t always articulate that. The words “public” and “private” don’t acknowledge a spectrum of privacy, and we don’t explicitly talk or think about things as “a little bit private” or “kinda public.” We’re getting used to the idea of “public” being an absolute, but it didn’t used to be, and we still feel a twinge every time the old and new meanings run into one another.

The internet, I think, is the strongest driver of this shift. We’ve gotten comfortable, up to a point, with the idea that “public,” online, means the whole world. Regardless of what you do online, someone knows: your ISP, Google, the websites you visit, the NSA. Facebook asks us to choose privacy settings—“only me,” “friends,” or “everyone.” There is no longer an option for “people in my town,” or “people in my country,” or “people at my school.” Now we are not just individuals, we are individuals who must protect “our data” or, by default, leave power over that information in the hands of others. Mostly that means our actions are “public,” because, for the vast majority of us, actively protecting our data is a time-consuming task with no obvious payoff.

What unsettles us, I think, and what unsettled Jad, is that the new online version of “public” is also bleeding over into our physical world. We’re bad at naming that, but we see it nonetheless. There used to be both physical and temporal limits on public information. What your house looked like was information available only to those who went past on your street—now we have Google Street View. Where you went and how you got there and who you spoke to was information that was observed by those around you, but had to be painfully reconstructed by others—now, anyone with access to the surveillance footage can just click back through time and see for themselves. Even in a crowd, computers can pick out your face, identify you, and track you back through time.

All of these things, and many others, affect those gradations that used to exist between “public” and “private.” Everything that used to be in between is getting shoehorned into the “public” side of this developing binary, while at the same time, the idea of “public” has expanded. We’ve redefined “public” from “available to anyone nearby right now (a perhaps a few others)” to “available to everyone everywhere, and for the indeterminate future as well.” The end result of these shifts is that instead of having increasing levels of public, like concentric circles that follow us around, we are collapsing into two—the things we do alone or in very small groups, and everything else.

One’s first impulse may be to moralize this—to ask if is it a good shift, or a bad shift, or a neutral shift. If I had to guess I would say it’s all of the above, and then some, but I also think that isn’t the most useful question. I don’t think “how do we stop it” is a terribly useful question either, because we, as a society, have always adapted to new technologies and new norms.

What I think we need to do is to look carefully at this shift and recognize it for what it is. The history of our society shows us that the interests of the powerful are often different from the interests of most citizens—and that we can only advocate for our interests if we collectively understand what they are. I think that rather than moralizing or obstructing this shift in meaning, we just need be able to name it and discuss it. That, I think, is the difference between the norms we choose, and the norms that are otherwise imposed on us.

May Recommended Reading

At the end of each month I compile links to articles I found thought-provoking over that month, categorized with pull-quotes for your perusal and edification. Each of these is a story that made me stop and think, and hopefully one or two of them will do the same for you. This time I’m adding a “pick of the month” category for the best and most interesting story I saw this month.

Pick of the Month: 

The Wreck of the Kulluk – McKenzie Funk

This is truly excellent reporting, and incredibly informative. It’s a gripping story of Shell Oil cutting corners, hunting for arctic oil, and being hoist with their own petard. There is no one quote that will do this justice, but it is equal parts corporate desperation, intrigue and suspense, and action and heroism on the high seas.

On Baltimore and Racism: 

Black America’s Baltimore schism: Why the Freddie Gray tragedy demands serious soul-searching – Brittney Cooper

“The right of the people to revolt in response to unjust conditions is a founding principle of this Republic. But another founding principle of this republic is that Black people are not fully human. Therefore they are not legitimately “the people,” not a part of the “demos” in democracy. Thus revolution and rebellion remain the province and property of America’s white citizens. All other comers are illegitimate.”

De Blasio: Civil Disobedience Means Do What The Cops Tell You – Christopher Robbins

“In short: if you want to disobey the police, you have to make an appointment. It also helps if you’re a prominent, white, male, elected official running for higher office. Challenging the status quo sometimes means being a part of it. To the protesters who turned out on Wednesday to protest police brutality, whose friends and relatives were killed by the police, or whose skin color alone equates them with criminality in the eyes of the law, the mayor gave very clear advice: ‘Pay attention to the instructions of the police, and I think everything will go fine.’ ”

Media coverage of gang violence sure looks different when the perpetrators are white – Jenée Desmond-Harris

“Those who are using what happened in Waco to start conversations about stereotypes and media biases against black people aren’t complaining about the tenor of this weekend’s media coverage. They’re saying something a little different: that by being pretty reasonable and sticking to the facts, this coverage highlights the absurdity of the language and analysis that have been deployed in other instances, when the accused criminals are black.”


Wisconsin GOP Advances Bills Controlling How People On Welfare Eat And Pee – Arthur Delaney

“Legislation approved by the Wisconsin State Assembly on Wednesday would require drug screening for poor people in the state who want [need] public benefits and force food stamp recipients to spend most of their benefits on state-approved groceries.”


Female McMaster professors getting a pay boost to same level as men – CBC News

“Female professors at McMaster University will get a pay raise under a new plan to make sure women faculty are paid fairly.The university will boost the base salaries of female faculty by $3,515 per year starting on July 1. The increase comes after a joint study between the university and the faculty association determined that female faculty make that much less than their male counterparts.”

“The Good Ones Say No”: Why Purity Culture and Rape Culture Are Two Sides of the Same Coin – Miri

“On one side of the coin is the idea that only ‘good’ women are worth anything, and only women who consistently refuse men’s advances can be ‘good.’ Of course, this creates a paradox: if women are only ‘good’ as long as they refuse, and men could only ever want to get emotionally (and materially) invested in ‘good’ women, what happens when a woman stops refusing? So either men are supposed to only have sex with virgins and only once, or they’re supposed to indefinitely stay in relationships that are not sexually fulfilling (because there is no sex), or they’re supposed to coerce and rape women. The latter option is the only way to have sex with someone who says no, by the way.”

Entering the Mind of My Rapist: An Exercise in Extreme Empathy – Deborah Copaken

“I didn’t even want him not to graduate. I wanted to confront him in a safe place in front of others. I wanted him to understand that what he did to me—penetration against my will—was wrong, really wrong! I wanted him to express remorse for having crossed a moral and legal line, so that if and when he ever raised a son, he could teach him not to cross it. I wanted, in short, an apology.

Am I delusional? Is this line of thinking the product of too much empathy and not enough rage? Maybe. But I don’t think so. No matter how my rapist (and I will always call him that, “my rapist”) told the story of what happened that night before graduation, the fact that one of us experienced it as a rape should have been enough to force an immediate discussion in which proving guilt, beyond a shadow of a doubt and at the expense of my reputation—a second rape, if you will—was not the goal.”

Incapacitated and Forcible Rape of College Women: Prevalence Across the First Year – Kate Carey, Sarah Durney, Robyn Shepardson, and Michael Carey

“Before entering college, 28% of women had experienced attempted or completed rape. During their first year, one of six female students had experienced [attempted or completed incapacitated rape] or [attempted or completed forcible rape]. The lifetime prevalence of attempted or completed rape increased to 37% by the start of sophomore year.”

In summary, 1 of every 4 women is assaulted in her first year of college, and 1 in every 3 women has been assaulted sometime in her life before her sophomore year.

LGBTQ Rights:

Alabama minister tried to marry a lesbian couple — now she’s on probation – Jin Zhao

“A minister arrested on a misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge for trying to perform a gay wedding in an Alabama courthouse pleaded guilty on Monday but will avoid serving time in jail, Montgomery Advertiser reports. Anne Susan DiPrizio, 44, entered the plea in Autauga County Circuit Court. A judge ordered her to pay a $250 fine and gave her a 30-day jail sentence, which was suspended later in place of a six months unsupervised probation.”

Government and Privacy:

Court rules NSA program illegal – Jim Acosta, Ted Barrett and Jeremy Diamond

“ ‘This decision is a resounding victory for the rule of law,’ said ACLU Staff Attorney Alex Abdo, who brought the challenge. ‘For years, the government secretly spied on millions of innocent Americans based on a shockingly broad interpretation of its authority. The court rightly rejected the government’s theory that it may stockpile information on all of us in case that information proves useful in the future. Mass surveillance does not make us any safer, and it is fundamentally incompatible with the privacy necessary in a free society,’ he said.”

Climate Change:

400 Again – Phil Plait

“There are people out there who still will pooh-pooh this, saying carbon dioxide is good for us, and plants love it. Let me be clear: This is the single dumbest thing climate change deniers have ever said, and that’s a deep, deep well of dumbosity. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas, and the science on this is very basic, as basic as knowing a rock will fall when you drop it from your hand. At first blush 400 ppm may not sound like much, but it means we’re significantly accelerating planetary heating. And warming the Earth doesn’t just mean we’ll be able to grow pineapples in Canada. It means huge changes to global weather patterns, changes we’re already seeing.”

What if climate change is real? – Katharine Hayhoe

This one is a video—a TED talk by a conservative climate scientist from Texas.

Ideas and Beliefs: 

How Facebook’s Algorithm Suppresses Content Diversity (Modestly) and How the Newsfeed Rules Your Clicks – Zeynep Tufekci

“Here’s the key finding: Facebook researchers conclusively show that Facebook’s newsfeed algorithm decreases ideologically diverse, cross-cutting content people see from their social networks on Facebook by a measurable amount. The researchers report that exposure to diverse content is suppressed by Facebook’s algorithm by 8% for self-identified liberals and by 5% for self-identified conservatives.”

Canvassers study in Episode #555 has been retracted – Ira Glass

“Last month [This American Life] did a story about canvassers who’d invented a way to go door to door and, in a 22-minute conversation, change people’s minds on issues like same sex marriage and abortion rights. We did the story because there was solid scientific data published in the journal Science – proving that the canvassers were really having an effect. Yesterday one of the authors of that study, Donald Green, asked Science to retract the study. Some of the data gathered by his co-author seems to have been faked.”

I Don’t Want to Be Right – Maria Konnikova

“The longer the narrative remains co-opted by prominent figures with little to no actual medical expertise—the Jenny McCarthys of the world—the more difficult it becomes to find a unified, non-ideological theme. The message can’t change unless the perceived consensus among figures we see as opinion and thought leaders changes first.

And that, ultimately, is the final, big piece of the puzzle: the cross-party, cross-platform unification of the country’s élites, those we perceive as opinion leaders, can make it possible for messages to spread broadly. The campaign against smoking is one of the most successful public-interest fact-checking operations in history. But, if smoking were just for Republicans or Democrats, change would have been far more unlikely. It’s only after ideology is put to the side that a message itself can change, so that it becomes decoupled from notions of self-perception.”

This Is How Fast America Changes Its Mind – Alex Tribou and Keith Collins

“Eleven years after Massachusetts became the first state to allow same-sex couples to marry, the Supreme Court on April 28 will hear arguments about whether to extend that right nationwide. The case comes amid a wave of gay marriage legalization: 28 states since 2013, and 36 overall. Such widespread acceptance in a short amount of time isn’t a phenomenon unique to gay marriage. Social change in the U.S. appears to follow a pattern: A few pioneer states get out front before the others, and then a key event—often a court decision or a grassroots campaign reaching maturity—triggers a rush of state activity that ultimately leads to a change in federal law.”

With cool graphs!