June 9, 2006

"I am continually shocked and appalled at the details people voluntarily post online about themselves."

Amid all the efforts to stir up public outrage about the evils of government invading our privacy, MySpace and Friendster stand as monuments to our willingness to invade our own privacy. Do you expect the government not to take advantage of the information people post about themselves?
New Scientist has discovered that Pentagon's National Security Agency, which specialises in eavesdropping and code-breaking, is funding research into the mass harvesting of the information that people post about themselves on social networks. And it could harness advances in internet technology - specifically the forthcoming "semantic web" championed by the web standards organisation W3C - to combine data from social networking websites with details such as banking, retail and property records, allowing the NSA to build extensive, all-embracing personal profiles of individuals....

"You should always assume anything you write online is stapled to your resumé. People don't realise you get Googled just to get a job interview these days," says [Jon Callas, chief security officer at PGP, a Silicon Valley-based maker of encryption software].
But I used a pseudonym!... But I left off my last name!

There's also the problem of trying to make people care about the government listening in on phone calls when we walk around everywhere with our phones and talk in front of people all the time.

UPDATE: If you think this post is an argument about what rights are, your reading is very poor.

35 comments:

Simon said...

"You should always assume anything you write online is stapled to your resumé."

I can't imagine anyone seriously being naive enough to not assume this. On the other hand, maybe some people do get upset when they discover that you're accountable for what you say online. The horror! "Oh no - not that! Anything but that! Anything but accountability and personal consequences for what I say and do!"

The moral of the story isn't "use a pseudonym," or "le[eave] off your last name", it's "don't write something you wouldn't be prepared to shout through a megaphone outside your place of employment".

Ann Althouse said...

What do you do when your parents or children or friends write about you? Normally, other people don't get to staple crap to your resume.

I've got losers (with pseudonyms) calling me insane and moronic. Those are opinions, not facts, but still... And I am calling them losers, stapling equivalent crap to their resumes.

Maybe at some point it won't even matter...

But I do think the government will mine this information. It really must.

Simon said...

Well, let me relate a story. I get email from time-to-time about Ninoville, because let's face it, there's a lot of folks who really appreciate Justice Scalia, and then there's a bunch of folks who think he is, not to put too fine a point on it, the devil.

So anyway, this guy sends me an email, safe in what he likely thought was anomynity. And it's just ghastly, the sort of twelfth grade rhetoric you expect from people who send nasty, anonymous emails to people trying to provide a useful service. I really doubt he expected me to google his email address, discover that he had used it to post various comments on blogs and messageboards, and from that discover his real name and that he had been an attorney for X years.

And I imagine he REALLY didn't expect me to look up the IP address of the computer he sent the mail from, discover it was in a small-ish town in the midwest, and cross-reference that against a search on Findlaw for attorneys with his name, whereupon I discovered that there did indeed happen to be an attorney - only one - with his name, in that town, who specialized in the areas he claimed to specialize in.

And I really doubt that he expected to get an email personally identifying him and his location, and politely reminding him that standards of professional conduct do not generally look sympathetically on calling Catholics "sexist pedophile cultists," and that - given that more than one third of the residents of his state are Catholics, I doubt his employer, coworkers or clients, all of which doubtless include catholics, who don't generally like being called "sexist pedophile cultists" - suggesting that in the future, he learn to communicate the way that civilized people do.

If you write something in email or on the web, assume you say it to the people who pay your wages. You have a constitutional right to free speech, Armando, but as Holmes might say, you don't have a constitutional right to clients who want to pay you for billable hours.

Balfegor said...

You should always assume anything you write online is stapled to your resumé.

This is obvious enough . . . but I was still shocked one day to discover an email apparently inviting me to apply for a job with some consultancy, apparently on the basis of blather I'd written on an internet forum. Same pseudonym as here ("Balfegor") but it's not particularly hard to find my actual name and identity particularly since I've been using the same SN since middle school, and by now, there's loads of (now dead) links connecting this SN to my old academic accounts, which trace back to my legal name. My white name is pretty generic, but the name I go by in private life is distinctive enough that you know it's me.

I would simply never have thought that someone would bother to look me up in an employment context. As it was, I only found the email a few months ago, cleaning out the junk hotmail account I'd been using to register for accounts -- you get so much spam from the spiders if your email is publically accessible on online fora. By the time it came, I'd already accepted a different job anyhow. But it was surprising to me.

it's "don't write something you wouldn't be prepared to shout through a megaphone outside your place of employment".

I've deleted some extra-intemperate stuff I've written for just this reason. And it isn't on Google cache or Archive.org. I have checked.

That said, I think the "megaphone" comment isn't quite apt -- it's more like "anything you wouldn't be prepared to say in polite company." Because even if the record lingers longer, it's really more like idle gossip getting reported back, and revealing an unpleasant side of oneself to clients/employers/friends, etc. Not a new risk, really, just an old risk increased.

CB said...

Over on Fark.com, it seems like there's a new article posted about every 3 or 4 days about teens who commit a crime, write about it on myspace, then are apprehended after the police read about it.

Marghlar said...

Simon: that story cracks me up. Nice work.

I do think anonymity can be a useful thing -- especially for people like me who are early in their careers. But I think that too many people use anonymity as a way to avoid rules of good social behavior -- and when they do so, unmasking them is totally appropriate.

There's also the problem of trying to make people care about the government listening in on phone calls when we walk around everywhere with our phones and talk in front of people all the time.

Ann, I think this, and the fact that most of our email is stored on servers that can be accessed by others without our knowledge, is one of the main reasons that many people my age are much less upset about the NSA program and whatnot than our parents' generation is. For them, surveillance is someone breathing over your phoneline, but for us, living our lives in semi-public view feels fairly natural. Which is why I view the whole fight over these programs as more of an interesting exercise in legal analysis, than as any kind of threat to my liberty.

Brian said...

I find it interesting that those of you on the right, who always seemed paranoid about big goverment prying into private lives of it's citizens don't have any problem when it actually does.
Why? Do you really think there will never be any abouse of any kind with that much power? And if not, just imagine the day an ultra liberal gets into office and decides it's time to keep lists of gun owners and anyone connected to a right wing political group. After all, the second worst terrorist attack on this country in OK was caused by a fanatical right winger.

Beware ANY goverment overreach.

Marghlar said...

Brian: I'd love it if an ultra-liberal got into office. My politics are almost entirely left. I'm referring to a phenomenon common among my generation of liberals (me, my wife, my friends, etc). We aren't as afraid of surveillance as earlier generations of liberals were.

See where assumptions get you?

Jacques Cuze said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Jacques Cuze said...

Amid all the efforts to stir up public outrage about the evils of government invading our privacy, MySpace and Friendster stand as monuments to our willingness to invade our own privacy. Do you expect the government not to take advantage of the information people post about themselves?

Do I expect the FBI to use Google? Of course I do. I hope they would.

Do I expect the NSA and CIA to use a specially created data-mining search engine of their own to link all of my online activities with my commercial activities that they can access via proprietary databases? Not unless they have a FISA warrant.

Do I expect the FBI to be able to use such a special search engine that can datamine all online activities and link that to proprietary commercial databases?

I would agree with Scalia in Kyllo:

The question we confront today is what limits there are upon this power of technology to shrink the realm of guaranteed privacy. To withdraw protection of this minimum expectation would be to permit police technology to erode the privacy guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment." Justice Scalia and the majority opinion then proposes a standard for checking the constitutionality of search/detection equipment:

"We think that obtaining by sense-enhancing technology any information regarding the interior of the home that could not otherwise have been obtained without physical "intrusion into a constitutionally protected area",(Silverman, 365 U.S., at 512), constitutes a search-at least where (as here) the technology in question is not in general public use."


Would I expect a self-proclaimed Democratic Constitutional Law Professor Blog Diva to understand this and to try and clarify the issues as opposed to muddling them with bad analogies to voluntary disclosures on websites and the behavior of some people to walk around speaking into a cellphone?

No, sadly, I would not expect such a law professor to do her job and clarify the issues: the differences between voluntary actions and government police actions, the differences between information obtained from observing a small individual leaks and information obtainable through large scale scanning of databases, the police intrusion through technology into constitutionally protected areas, the government's sidestepping of the privacy act through the commissioning and purchase of commercial databases, the bad science involved in watching the behavior of a self-selected individuals few and projecting that into conclusions about the opinions of the larger society.

TIA was not stopped, but it did go underground, and I would expect a Constitutional Law Professor, worthy of the title, to be discussing the implications.

Jacques Cuze said...

I would expect a Constitutional Law Professor, worthy of the title, to be discussing Kyllo and other Supreme Court decisions in the context of To protect the public from terrorism and other hazards, the U.S. government mines its vast databases for signs of trouble. Increasingly, the feds are requesting--even demanding--that businesses share their data, too. But such cooperation isn't cheap or easy, and several industries are pushing back to protect their customers' privacy.

Not long after forcing Internet companies to submit search terms, search result URLs, and other information as part of its enforcement of the Child Online Protection Act, the Justice Department is going a step further. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales is now asking the likes of Google, AOL, and Verizon to keep subscriber information and other customer data for at least two years, just in case the government needs it for criminal investigations. Currently, Internet companies are under no obligation to save that data at all.
...
People want the government to have the data needed to fight crime and terrorism; it's the potential misuse of personally identifiable data--names, addresses, Social Security numbers, Web search histories--that is deeply worrisome.

Internet Ronin said...

Having followed the links, I see that Armando crafted quite the dramatic exit for himself. Too bad his claim about being outed by some opponent is not supported by the facts. If he wanted to remain anonymous, he shouldn't have been making public speeches about his internet activities or listing those activities on resumes provided to conference hosts for publication.

Ted said...

I completely agree. In a world where people frequently give away their personal information voluntarily, these complaints about privacy violations are clearly just more partisan noise. I just tune it out.

On a related note, I am amazed that people continue to whine about being robbed, when countless individuals _voluntarily_ give away money.

I guess that not everyone is as smart as us, Ann.

Ann Althouse said...

Ted: Your reading comprehension is very poor.

Jennifer said...

I am continually shocked and appalled at the details people can't seem to grasp in your posts.

Ann Althouse said...

Jennifer: I ran across a website today where some assistant professor in political science is strenuously insulting me for failing to understand the Fourth Amendment in this post, with ridiculous commenters following his cue. Go over there and check it out. Feel free to leave a comment there. I did, but it just drew bizarre insults. Really, some people refuse to read, don't want to be fair, don't try to understand, and, apparently, just live for political opinion. Really ugly!

Jacques Cuze said...

Ann,

I think it is your reading comprehension that needs examing. Or maybe your ego. I fail to see how Scott Lemiux is strenuously insulting you. He says he is baffled by your take and declares you a conservatarian and your argument a non-sequitur.

That is all he says. That's an insult? That's a strenuous insult? What is a strenuous insult?

Once again, you engage in a smear campaign, this time against "some assistant professor" by saying he is insulting you when he clearly is not. Shame Ann.

And you now apparently claim in an update and in comment's at Lemiux's blog that this post of yours s about the difficulty of getting people to feel outraged

But it is not. If it were not you telling people that you are okay with government invastion of privacy based on your surfing of MySpace, than why would you have written this?

But I do think the government will mine this information. It really must.

But I do thank you for the link to Scott's post.

Really, some people refuse to read, don't want to be fair, don't try to understand, and, apparently, just live for political opinion. Really ugly! Pot meet kettle. Ann, you seem to have this effect on a lot of people, or is it just projection?

Pinko Punko said...

Or maybe you write like an emu. It's hard to tell.

Since you never come out and say exactly what you mean

Jennifer said...

Ann: I put in my two cents but its not particularly eloquent and will likely just be pounced on by the small band of tools that seem to pop up whenever your name is mentioned.

It's like that whack-a-mole game - you can try to introduce a big mallet-o-logic to their pointy little heads, but it just glances off while they pop up somewhere else.

Ann Althouse said...

Pinko: If you want sledgehammer style, my blog is not the place. I'm sure you can find plenty of blogs to spell out clear ideology for you. My blog may seem easy to read, but that can be deceptive. You're supposed to think over here. Try it. It's pretty amazing, thinking.

Marghlar said...

Ack. This continual assertion that the Fourth Amendment is somehow obviously implicated by these programs, is constitutional garbage. The issues are complex in the extreme, and serious, non-agenda-driven people think there are reasonable arguments on both sides.

The statutory arguments are stronger, but that is a different discussion.

But yes, reading comprehension seems to be low. Ann was making a point which very much resonated for me -- that modern information technologies tend to encourage the younger generation to live their lives in a very open-access sort of way. As that change occurs, we are less likely to be bothered by surveillance, because everything we do is visible to others.

It's like all the fuss in Chicago over the cameras on public streets. That had this in London when I was there, and guess what? It made no difference in my life. I knew that there was no way they could possibly watch all of them at once (costs would be prohibitive), so they were probably just used to ID perps after crimes had been committed. Likewise, why would I get outraged when the state could obviously just put a cop on every street corner to watch what was going on? It's a public space -- why the fuss over it being recorded?'

All this just seems a far cry from the actually abusive, J. Edgar Hoover kind of stuff. Let them analyze my calling patterns -- what, are they going to learn that I order too much take out, and talk to my friends?

If this was about them recording the content of my calls, then I'd want to see warrants and whatnot. But this just seems a lot of fuss over a pretty inconsequential intrusion. Count me among the bored.

boinky said...

If you really want to be scared, just think: when you are treated by your health care provider, they put down your diagnosis...
And how about Amazon having me on profile?
Or the fact that during the last election, the Democratic party called me on an unlisted number to remind me to vote...in Spanish?
Given the theft of the VA personnel data last week, you should probably just assume if they want to know about you, they will find it out.

Balfegor said...

Likewise, why would I get outraged when the state could obviously just put a cop on every street corner to watch what was going on? It's a public space -- why the fuss over it being recorded?'

My intuition is that people would get outraged, and go on about how we've become a "police state," if there were a cop on every street corner. Didn't New Yorkers complain about this, when policing got stepped up in their city? Even New Yorkers who'd committed no crime, and never got hauled in by the police.

lindata said...

The issue is, if you as a private citizen, overhear my call, or read my post, I don't particularly care. But if you, as the government, are monitoring my calls, and data mining everyone's posts, I do particularly care. The difference is that other private citizens do not have infinite interest, money, or police and military power. But the government has an interest in power, a lot of money, and an ablility to FUBAR that can make particular indivuduals' lives miserable. What we need is a government that is interested protecting individual privacy, and in leveling the playing field between individuals and corporations. Not one that wants to maximize its power over individuals.

Wade_Garrett said...

I don't see the harm in letting other people know your hometown, or what your favorite books and movies are -- those sorts of things account for most of what people post on friendster and the facebook. But I've never understood why people post private contact information, or why they post embarassing photos of themselves. What good can come of it?

Marghlar said...

My intuition is that people would get outraged, and go on about how we've become a "police state," if there were a cop on every street corner. Didn't New Yorkers complain about this, when policing got stepped up in their city? Even New Yorkers who'd committed no crime, and never got hauled in by the police.

Maybe that's descriptively accurate, but it makes little sense to me. And anyway, the cameras are actually much less intrusive than that, because each cop would actually be looking at you and monitoring your behavior, whereas most of this camera footage never gets watched even once. It's just financially impossible for it to be otherwise.

mrsizer said...

lindata: That's how I started out thinking, but consider this: Who's more likely to get it right: Google or the government?

I have two primary Internet identities that I keep fairly well separated - "mrsizer" is one of them. I rarely post anonymously: If it's not worth signing my name, it's not worth saying.

I do "narcisurf" now and again to be sure that "mrsizer" - the professional me - is not easily cross-referenced with the other "me". But even if it were, it wouldn't be a horrible thing.

I don't particularly want my Gay Leathermen activism to show up on my resume, but, if it did (when it does), I can deal with it.

My third wish - of the mythical three wishes - has always been that everyone become telepathic and there be no more secrets. The Internet is making it happen. I think that's a good thing. Since it is happening gradually, we have time to get used to it.

Anyone who thinks posting on the Internet is really anonymous (without extreme measures such as several IP-anonymizing intermediate servers) is an idiot.

ANY data in third-party systems can be compromised - either technically (e.g. a packet sniffer on Blogger's connection to the backbone) or due to incompetence (e.g. the recent VA theft).

Big Brother is here and his name is Google.

Shane said...

The openness of information exchange works the other way as well. I work for the military and have a DoD Top Secret security clearance, and we always have problems with people who blog about sensitive (but unclassified) information. I'm sure corporations have the same problems with their intellectual property.

I used to keep a totally anonymous blog complete with proxy domain registration and no reference to even my first name, but forfeited anonymity when my father was murdered and I posted the details, including links to news stories that mentioned my father's full name. "Outing" myself ended up being a good thing, and I took posts with personal photographs, etc. from behind a password wall and gave it public access.

Now, I still strongly protect the specifics of my job and location, but that's because I just think it's good practice for someone with a security clearance to share as little information about work as necessary.

Pinko Punko said...

That is it. Double A is getting a take down on the next Three B mixtape disstape. It's all in good fun. Seriously, we wouldn't hurt a fly, a flea, or a pie.

We will try thinking next time, formidable law blogger, Ann Althouse. Thanks for the tiperoo! I note you linked Tim Blair, what is this the genius parade?

P. Punko OUT

trrll said...

There's also the problem of trying to make people care about the government listening in on phone calls when we walk around everywhere with our phones and talk in front of people all the time.

Isn't this kind of foolish? If I give cash to a beggar on the street, does that entitle the government to go into my bank account and secretly take my money?

The issue, after all, is not that every personal fact about everybody should be absolutely secret, but that people should be entitled to choose for themselves which aspects of their lives should be public and which should be private.

Ann Althouse said...

Trrll: I'm looking at how much people these days value privacy. Your analogy is about how much you value money. Is it a good analogy? How much money do people hand out carelessly? Enough to indicate that they won't get it if money is taken from them or others involuntarily? No. We understand what money means.

This post is about whether people continue to get what it means to want to keep phone calls and personal information private. My suggestion is that the behavior that's developed on the internet and with cell phones is, over time, causing people to lose touch with that value. I'm expressing concern that there won't be an aroused public conscience to respond to the intrusions on the people who do care.

That is, there a lot of voluntary behavior that evinces a new attitude about privacy and this new attitude should concern us, because it means that the people who do want to keep their privacy will have trouble making others care.

I think we're already seeing some of that with the NSA program. There is not much public outrage about it. It's been hard for those who are opposed to it to get people excited about it. I'm trying to analyze why that is.

Marghlar said...

The money analogy seems off-base, because it fails to capture something essential about information -- that you can both give it away and keep it.

So, if I give away my money, I obviously don't have it anymore...but if I share information with someone else, it can also still reach its intended recipient.

Now, privacy may be a different matter -- but a lot of people I know are fairly comfortable with a sort of mass anonymity. Most of our lives are semi-public, but there is a huge crowd of people doing similar stuff, so no one notices particularly what you are up to online or saying on your cell phone, at least not in any way that matters.

I'd say that the space of information that I feel the need to protect from others view has contracted enormously. How many things would I refuse to put into an email because it kind of belongs to Gmail after I have done so? Honestly, not much.

There is surely a level that would bother me -- if the government was cracking into people's hard drives, invading homes, or having individual agents listen in on a cell phone call. There, I am glad to have the protection of a warrant. But for the government to analyze metadata of calls in search of a small group of very dangerous criminals, is fine by me. Likewise, some computer analysis of international calls. Just doesn't bother me in any visceral way.

Now, none of that makes it legal -- and I actually tend to think that the admnisitration broke the law by doing this. But if the law was amended, future instances of the same wouldn't bug me very much.

Marghlar said...

In a nutshell (since people might get tired of my rants):

I think many people, including me, now place more reliance on soft privacy (the fact that there is so much information available that theirs is unlikely to be seen or used) than hard privacy (having that information absolutely protected from others' access).

Ann Althouse said...

Thanks, Marghlar. I'm not tired of that sort of thing at all. It was very well put and helpful.

lindata said...

Mrsizer: I agree with your concern for what corporations (such as Google) can do with the data they collect on us. Which is exactly why I want (need?) the government to be fulfilling its role. Just as the government has a role in establishing orderly markets, the government needs to establish rules for how data is collected, traded and used whether it be by individuals, other corporations or the government itself. The problem has been growing expodentially for 50 years, and reached escape velocity sometime in the late 80's. By now someone's stolen laptop can contain personal data on millions of people.

Still Goole can't put me in jail. We need to focus our government on the protection of actual individual people - from corporations and from government itself.