Will Social Media’s All-Seeing Eye End Privacy?

New York Press
May 19, 2010

NOT TOO LONG ago, if someone were spying on you, you’d feel creeped out. Protests were joined, organizations created, battles fought to protect one’s civil liberties. But now the concept of personal privacy is nearly dead. That’s right: Millions of Americans are obsessively spying on themselves for fun.

At the moment it may mostly be a group of tech-consumed city dwellers, but the New York-centric social networking application Foursquare—which invites you to report your own movements to the Web via a smart phone—has racked up a million users virtually overnight.

Drew Grant, a 25-year-old media blogger, explained how she signed up before the app went viral and admits to feeling “left out” when she’s not checked in. Even George Orwell, who raised the specter of evil Big Brother keeping tabs on everyone 24/7, would have blushed when she happily admits, “Its like an omniscient tool.” Oh, she also plans to tattoo a Foursquare icon soon.

Bill Brown, a privacy activist who produced a guerilla version of 1984 in the subway to protest Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) surveillance of public space, says he’s shelved mentions of Big Brother when talking to young people: “Its meaning has been emptied out by reality television.” Maybe a more fitting analogy to illustrate the disappearance of privacy under global capitalism would be Sauron’s all-seeing

Eye, from Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings trilogy, a metaphor for the police states of the 1930s. Whichever you pick, the main difference is that now authority is largely in “private,” corporate hands—and has a friendly face.

It’s hard to deny Foursquare’s appeal to a recession-blitzed generation of young people. Mostly under-employed and working from home (or a nearby coffeeshop), they’re isolated. But check into an East Village bar, drink a couple of Brooklyn Lagers and watch the ’hood light up as “everyone” checks in. That’s when something clicks: The entire city is a pinball game, and you’re a player. “It’s a very seductive scene,” Grant explains. It almost makes one believe founder Dennis Crowley’s pitch in the triumphant New York magazine April cover story that, on Foursquare, “Your happiness and your productivity is higher.”

On Foursquare, you’re under an everwatchful eye, but don’t feel its sinister side since you earn rewards and become “Mayor” of some trendy hangout if you rack up enough points. But start thinking about the increasingly tipsy trail you’re leaving, and who might be tracking you. Maybe it’s just an uneasy significant other thinking: “If you’re out, then why aren’t you ‘checked in?’” But what of the extra-close scrutiny being given to eager job applicants by pink-slip-happy managers? You don’t need to be the post-collegiate web-video dude who was ejected from a social media “meet up” at Barramundi on Clinton Street by the cops this winter—after throwing a drink in a girl’s face—to acknowledge the negative possibilities inherent in the Foursquare set-up. Do something you regret, and you’ll never be able to deny it, much less live it down.

True, Foursquare is not quite a 1984style apparatus of state control. Nursed on venture capital, it is, in ambition at least, a commercial enterprise. But add several more layers—ubiquitous social networking tools like cheap cameraphones, incessant Twitter posts and vanity-soaked sites like RandomNightOut, updated every day with pictures of hundreds of bleary-eyed partiers—to the mix, and Orwell’s metaphor for social control begins to hit home.

Foursquare is only the latest example of America’s fascination with trading away what the Electronic Frontier Foundation calls “locational privacy”—for convenience and safety. Cellphones, E-ZPasses, MetroCards, drug store customer reward programs, some Wi-Fi services and CCTV cameras can all be used to build a database comprised of your movements. As anyone who sees a psychiatrist, attends political rallies or scores a little weed should know, “locational privacy” is the operational cloak that maintains the status quo. But to the army of IT flaks who dominate the blogosphere—and set the narrative by which the Web defines itself—a desire for privacy is something to be scoffed at.

But the campaign for an increased ability to spy on innocent bystanders received a massive push May 1 when an improvised explosive device was found in a vehicle parked in Times Square. Ironically, while CCTV images of the terrorists’ vehicle are numerous, a more deadly outcome was averted by old-fashioned intelligence: a street vendor who alerted police of smoke coming from the parked SUV.

At 2 a.m. the next morning, standing in front of the army recruitment office in Times Square, Mayor Bloomberg, with police commissioner Ray Kelly at his side, said that the attack was just more proof that Homeland Security funding should keep flowing to NYC because the city is “where the target is.”

On May 3, some light was shed on Bloomberg’s statement when it was reported in the Times that an apparatus had already been planned for Midtown that will consist of “public and private security cameras and license plate readers [that] would be able to record and track every vehicle moving between 34th and 59th streets, river to river.” The article added that NYPD officials hoped the system would eventually be able to successfully profile potential threats by how much time they spend circling Times Square: “[T]he networks would be able to notice whether a car was circling any area suspiciously.” It is unclear how such a program would distinguish a car driven by a would-be bomber from that of a theatergoing family looking for a parking spot. But we’ve only just begun to mine all the data available out there.

While you’re weighing in on whether to throw your lot in with the cool kids on Foursquare, note that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg—who famously said, “Privacy is no longer the social norm,” and thinks it would be great if everyone carried an RFID chip to track them—is reportedly eyeing Foursquare. Another corporate behemoth with a checkered past when it comes to privacy rights, AT&T is considering buying in as well. They’ve already been criticized for having acquiesced to politically motivated FBI wiretaps. You might also recall the controversial Patriot Act, whereby the government can easily demand personal data from digital providers.

Of course, Fourquare is still a guppy of the social-media web compared to Facebook, which has been setting off privacy alarms all over the place. According to Macworld, the depressing list of criticisms against Facebook include a mysterious function in which third-party links inexplicably appear in your application page, even if you opt in to the new safeguards. This is an especially troubling sign, because the third-party links that have been popping up include new-media companies, like CNET, that have objected to Facebook’s anti-privacy actions.

Rebecca Jeschke of the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that even the “opt out” privacy safety valve might be eliminated by Zuckerberg. “It’s a very problematic time,” she adds, ruefully.

The twisted ins and outs of Facebook’s new anti-privacy machinations seem designed to confuse users into frustrated acceptance. Fifteen consumer groups, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, have challenged Facebook’s new anti-privacy settings with the Federal Trade Commission. Clearly implying that the network lured its gigantic user base in part by promising privacy standards it never planned on upholding, the filing reads in part: “Facebook now discloses personal information to the public that Facebook users previously restricted.” Facebook, which has already been smacked with multimillion dollar lawsuits for similar breeches, could very well have left itself open to a class action lawsuit.

Even more disturbing than the Facebook issues is Google’s transformation into a monolithic global spy network that gobbles up user computer data via its roving hightech Street View trucks—also outfitted with data-mining equipment. Last week, the New York Times reported that the search monopoly admitted it had recorded—and stored—“billions of bits” of data, including email content, as it photographed streetscapes around the world. So far, only the Europeans, perhaps perceiving Google as one more American cultural intrusion on their sovereignty, have cried foul. Typical of irate shouts heard only across the Atlantic was one from Simon Davies, a London privacy advocate: “[O]ver the past year [Google] has moved substantially in the direction of being perceived as Big Brother.” The search monopoly has not made clear what its motivation to spy on citizens around the world was, only saying bizarrely that the breach represented a “mistake” and they were stopping.

But try unplugging yourself from the social network matrix. The urge to live in public, regardless of the consequences, has spawned a brand new set of rules and coping mechanisms for new-media devotees. Doree Shafrir wrote a
cogent piece for New York titled “The Warm-Fuzzy Web,” that outlined the most marked of these trends: keeping everyone happy lest
you lose your “social capital,” the juice on which all new-media applications purportedly run.

By far these youth-marketers’ most awe-inspiring triumph is to paint privacy as a refuge of the unhip. An
army of new-media strivers eagerly deploys corporate-friendly concepts like “social capital” and “migrating social patterns.” In reality, frequent corporate spokesman and new-media guru Clay Shirkey cooked up these phrasings inside a think tank—they are lent a tinge of genuine popular phenomena, and parroted by the establishment media.

Last month, John Horgan, a frequent contributor to Scientific American and Director of the Center for Science Writings at Stevens Tech, elevated the idea of no-privacy to jaw-dropping levels when he wrote a Scientific American blog titled, “Grassroots
spying might make world peace possible.” Horgan’s plan is for citizens across the globe to check up on each other and feed incriminating data into a monstrous open-source network modeled along the lines of Wikipedia. Dismissing fears of “traditional, Big Brother-ish agencies,” he concludes: “Privacy… is a small price to pay for peace, especially since we’re headed toward radical transparency anyway.” What Horgan and kindred spirits, like Shirkey and Google’s Chris DiBona, don’t tell you
is that intelligence is only good if you have the power to use it.

David Goodman, a California-based neuroscientist who has penned essays mocking what he calls Big Brother’s hold on academia, and is a property-rights advocate, says readers should even be leery of supposedly liberal academics trumpeting intelligence-friendly rhetoric. “I can hardly wait to see him post all his sources of income,” he says, speculating that
even if Horgan does not have “clandestine corporate or intelligence connections,” he would not like his own foibles broadcast online. “He can live in his glass house, and the rest of us can throw stones.”

Even if telecom monopolies don’t grab Foursquare, the free service’s business model is dependent on “consumer profiling” and “targeted ads.” These depend on algorithms that conjure a mushrooming cloud of “location-based” data that is
logged on Twitter, where it is visible via the Web. Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, told CNBC that the search monopoly has no problem
cooperating with the government. If it’s really a secret, he lectured, “Maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” The social media world may very well be a world of zero second chances.

Once again, as in the dot-com boom and MySpace craze, traditional media outlets such as the New York Times have checked their skepticism at the door, devoting acres of glowing prose to chronicling the ins and outs of Foursquare’s “meet-ups.” Not coincidentally, these same media empires are using these networking applications to direct traffic to their sites
(full disclosure: New York Press also has a Twitter account). The Wall Street Journal is now serving up a “location-based” news
service. If you’re stuck bumper-to-bumper on the George Washington Bridge and you’re checked in, you’ll be alerted that you forgot about the big Yankees game. Reports indicate that Journal management has gravely considered the possibility of “cognitive dissonance, ”meaning, what if users freak out from information overload. Or what if the reason for the traffic jam isn’t the big game but a bomb threat on the bridge, which could lead to a major panic. Of course, young users might wonder if statements like this say more about the age of the old-media managers—and their slavish acceptance of fads they don’t begin to comprehend—than anything about the cool new applications.

In rare instances where the press broaches the subject of privacy in relation to social media, the danger is seen to lie in “identity theft” scams or stalkers. Should we be surprised that media conglomerates fail to note
the more insidious danger in the amassing of all this personal information in searchable form?

Things move so fast these days that a bunch of new social media applications are already nipping at Foursquare’s heels. Blippy, which encourages you to share information about what brand of back-to-school jeans or greasy fast-food lunch
you’re buying, caused a firestorm of criticism after some users’ credit card info began appearing on Google. When scolded by the same New York Times writer who had cautiously heralded it just the day before, the start-up admitted: “It has been a rocky weekend for Blippy.”

Three days after the Blippy dust-up, an even creepier application, called SubMate, materialized, cooing at users to plug in their subway route to work, after a simple onestep, Facebook-enabled sign-in. According to the gushy post on Business Insider, which introduced it, the stated aim of SubMate is to tell you “about people near you who share similar ideas as you.” Just in case the L train isn’t your idea of a sex club on wheels, the post comes with a graphic featuring youthful looking
commuters not wearing pants.

Why Business Insider was rehashing blatant PR is not clear, but writer Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, per the
Web’s recently enacted full-disclosure laws, snarkily admitted to being SubMate’s “unpaid advisor.” Oozing praise over the souped-up platform, Gobry wrote: “While Foursquare asks you to check in at each new place you visit, SubMate knows about the areas where you usually go.” While purportedly based in Paris, the venture’s CEO, Laurent Katz, explained that “living in New York” inspired the app. By May 1, the New York Post was devoting a full page to hyping the two-bit European-based start-up.

At this stage of the bubble, it’s impossible to tell why dubiously sourced “location-based” apps—with little or no chance at ever turning a profit—are spreading like herpes. Are they just venture capital scams? Remember: These apps’ stated intentions are to help others better keep an eye on you. Soon, hopefully, we can find out where the money came

Now hat an entire generation has been trained to upload their personal habits—as well as their innermost hopes and fears—onto the Web, it doesn’t seem like it will be a passing fad. Before you sign up for Blippy, SubMate or Foursquare, however, you might want to pause to consider: Who really wants to watch you?

Mining social media networks for personal data is a stated priority of both the intelligence
and law enforcement communities. A September 2005 white paper published
in conjunction with the CIA maintains that “the agency perhaps has the
greatest to gain from adopting social software.”

Closer to home, in February, Nassau County cops launched a “digital dragnet”—tagged with
the Orwellian acronym HALT (Heroin Abuse Location and Targeting)—aimed at nabbing drug abusers via a combination of data mining and real life surveillance.

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, and social media is not the brainchild of the security state-think-tank-consensus. Don’t forget that Clay Shirkey was a member of a CIA roundtable discussion in September 2006. Or that a Kremlin-backed company named Digital Sky Technologies began amassing Facebook stock in 2009. By December, when Facebook first began dismantling its firewall, DST owned 5 percent, according to Komersant,a Russian newspaper.

Asked why Facebook was doing away with its users’ privacy, Rebecca Jescke, media relations director with the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, was hesitant to speculate, saying only, “There’s probably a ton of money in it for them.” Ironically, Zuckerberg has been unforthcoming about revealing his backers. Behavior-patterning programs, Brown says, are so alarming because “now they can literally pick the needle out of the haystack.”

SubMate, for example, could easily add power to the remote eye already zooming in on MTA commuters—a spanking-new, but
unsurprisingly faulty CCTV apparatus, consisting of over 3,000 cameras. Weakened by the tragicomic bumbling of Lockheed Martin, the city’s contractor, the system was shocked back to life on March 29 after two unrelated attacks occurred in the Moscow and New York subways. The Moscow attack, a suicide bombing, and the local one, an apparently random double knifemurder, fueled cries in the dailies for more surveillance, although it was unclear if that would help prevent such
brutal crimes from occurring.

Privacy activist Bill Brown, a 50-year-old Queens-born copywriter, finds it a fitting coincidence that downtown
Manhattan gave birth to the Foursquare craze. Because of its value to multi-nationals, the city is the center of a new corporate surveillance society that is sweeping the country. The federally funded Lower Manhattan Security Initiative (LMSI) makes Downtown the most closely recorded real estate in America. (Another anti-terrorism program, SHIELD, promotes “public-private partnership based on information sharing” on a citywide level.) Hugh O’Rourke, formerly of the NYPD antiterrorism squad, says the blanket CCTV coverage below 34th Street is fashioned after London’s famed “Ring of Steel.” “People have been under
observation for years downtown,” he explains. “They’re used to it.”

In her 2007 anti-laissez faire broadside Shock Doctrine, author Naomi Klein explicitly links the “deafening hype”-based business models of the security industry and Silicon Valley. “Like the dot-com bubble, the disaster bubble is inflating in an ad-hoc and chaotic fashion,” she writes.

Since there’s no one to watch countless hours of footage, CCTV surveillance relies on “analytic software” that produces something called “behavior recognition”—much like social networking, which depends on corporate data mining to accomplish “consumer profiling.” If cameras see you standing still in Penn Station with a messenger bag for longer than the
algorithm deems normal, a red flag goes off in the LMSI command center, and the flesh-andblood cops descend on you.

O’Rourke and Brown, who sit on opposite sides of the fence on virtually every conceivable social and political issue,
agree that the rise of “behavioral profiling” computer algorithms is troubling. Stressing that a cop can separate a real threat from that of a 9-to-5 commuter who missed his train, O’Rourke says he understands Brown’s concerns about such software. “Computers are restricted to algorithms,” O’Rourke says.

But then again, if you have some kid in a car already checked into Foursquare, tweeting plans on Twitter, zoomed in to Google
Maps to locate where they are and telling everyone in the world where they’re headed, some of the work is already done. As they say, knowing is half the battle.