[Air-L] Privacy Buzz + I love Alaska

Seda Guerses sguerses at esat.kuleuven.be
Thu Feb 18 17:09:58 PST 2010

today i finally read through the privacy thread and am really  
appreciating it. what is really interesting in the discussion is the  
way that talking about privacy (individual or privacy as a public  
good) automatically opens up questions about property, labor and  
commodification of the public sphere. after spending the last few  
years asking the question how to deal with privacy in systems design,  
i have found that undoing this entanglement does injustice to what  
privacy has become in surveillance/information space(s). this type of  
disentanglement also has a negative effect on the type of privacy  
research in computer science but surely also in other fields like law  
and sociology. specifically, the focus of privacy research has been on  
confidentiality and anonymity. christian fuchs also mentions in his  
blog entry on the google buzz:

"Therefore special privacy protection mechanisms are needed. All large  
collections of data pose the threat of being accessed by individuals  
who want to harm others"

i am interpreting the "privacy protection mechanisms" to be legal  
protections as well as confidentiality and anonymity tools. although  
such solutions are very important and i would not want to spend a day  
without them, i have argued here (http://bit.ly/bpajqx) why in a  
surveillance society there are just as well situations in which  
confidentiality and anonymity can work against the individual or a  
community. david phillips has also written a lot about the importance  
of being able to negotiate the public and private divide with respect  
to queer politics. he opens up the discussion on what privacy can mean  
in a society which has integrated digital into everyday life, and how  
confidentiality and anonymity can be the means for negotiating the  
public private divide, but are not goals in themselves.

a recent case in which anonymity itself can backfire is the  
documentary film "i love alaska" (http://www.minimovies.org/documentaires/view/ilovealaska 
). a couple of dutch filmmakers produced this film based on the  
profile of an anonymous user selected from the aol search data  
released in 2006. the film is on the one hand very interesting: the  
filmmakers saw the queries of this anonymous user as her prose and  
used it to narrate their film (without her knowledge). one of the  
interesting developments of our digital times has been the possibility  
of "participatory surveillance" (Albrechtslund,2008) which the film  
confronts the viewer with. it is exciting, touching, frustrating and  
curious to experience these queries. at the same time, the film is  
aggrevating (despite its cold calm) as one sits through very personal  
queries, written in full sentence into the aol search engine. it is  
impossible not to question what it means for data to become anonymous*  
and hence to question what it means to do something with anonymous  
data, or what happens to digital discretion once data goes anonymous?  
the filmmakers also put one profile under the magnifying glass, void  
of time stamps, reducing the profiled person to couple of not so sunny  
queries a day, reframing the queeries as a representation of some very  
deep truth about the querying person. but, as even google's vincent  
cerf will admit, it is not that single "identifiable" profiles are at  
the center of corporate attention, but rather aggregation of "de- 
identified" surveilance data often used for various types of social  
sorting and efficient services. hence, the film once again derails the  
focus of privacy from one of a social problem to that of a personal/ 
individual problem. the profile selected for the film is also worthy  
of questioning with respect to gender, class, age, sexuality, obesity  

current data protection and companies like facebook and google have  
reduced privacy to a solitary ritual of setting your privacy controls  
on miniscule subsets of the data they compile and process about  
indivduals, communities and networks. this way of framing the problem  
unfortunately also makes it difficult to have some of the discussions  
about public services, the commons, etc. when it comes to surveillance  
and privacy. i agree with zeynep:

Our social commons have moved online; it does not make sense to tell
people to avoid these services as they essential to participating  
fully in
the life of the 21st century.

yes, but the question is, how can we make the existing discussions as  
well about the commons, property and material matters, and not just  
about individual choices on privacy...any ideas?

* legally and technically anonymous data is in a sense vogelfrei. in  
the middle ages people could be declared vogelfrei (free as a bird)  
meaning that person was free to do whatever she pleased, but at the  
same time others were also allowed to do whatever they wanted to her,  
as no more legal protection was offered to that person. today data  
protection in europe for example does not protect anonymous data. what  
anonymity means is another big matter related to identity which is fun  
to discuss and lots of maths, but maybe not tonight.

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