Disrecognized Space

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The data (under)mining of new privacies

Privacy in the world of social networking has become a contentious concept, with the more sensationalist tabloid media such as commercial current affairs programs and talkback radio claiming there is no privacy online. This paper looks at the shifting boundaries of privacy in the virtual environment and its relation to earlier concepts of privacy. Furthermore, the way online networks facilitate data mining by corporate marketers is discussed. Rather than erasing privacy, social networking users are redefining privacy from within through a mutual process to meet their own needs, while what should actually cause concern is the way this new wealth of information can be challenged by corporate interests from outside this consensual process.Social networking has become a new moral panic for the sensationalist media, where Facebook and social networking are usually seen as equivalent since Facebook has expanded so dramatically that it seems the only such site (just as MySpace before it). Hood (2011) describes how we are being warned that teenagers on Facebook are apparently opening themselves up to meeting threatening or dangerous strangers. This then becomes equated with the problems of alcohol and drugs by the media so that the moral (and real) dangers become equivalent. Since personal details can be accidentally sent to thousands of recipients either through lack of refining privacy settings or by the sites themselves changing how information is distributed (for example, when Facebook instituted its Beacon service, revealing information to third parties without consulting users first (Ortutay, 2009)), this leads to accusations that Facebook is “devious” and “fraudulent” (Powell, 2011). Facebook is also declared to be, apparently without any supporting evidence, “leading (…) young people astray” (Snyder, 2011). These concerns, whether they are legitimate or not, whether they are general or exceptions, centre around the issue of privacy in social media, and what are seen as breaches of privacy.

It is worthwhile to first consider what privacy is and its purposes. Barker (2008, p. 368) notes that concepts of privacy are not universal but are culturally dependent, determined by prevailing expectations. He observes that private space was redefined in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries through the enclosure movement whereby private and common spaces changed meanings. Today, online communities are undergoing just such a transformation though now the private and common spaces are virtual. Barker also notes (2008, p. 471) the concept of private identities described by Rorty, observing that “our best chance of pursuing a private identity project may be to live in a culture that prides itself on being heterogenous”. In this sense private goals are identity-defining when played out in public spaces.

Privacy is also not a static concept, as Blatterer, Johnson and Markus note (2010, p. 1) in a constantly changing society. Indeed, privacy in the modern sense is a recent invention, coming into being in the eighteenth century as society became more bourgeois (Burkart, 2010, p. 23) and increasingly individualistic, leading to less emphasis on (group) religious confession and more on ‘self-thematization’, turning the construction of the self from a group to a personal representation. Privacy serves both as a form of allowing confessional representation, and as a form of performance of identity in the (complementary) public sphere (Burkart, 2010, p. 34) where various personas are constructed as a ‘theatrical performance’. Privacy is therefore never settled but always determined to a greater or lesser extent by the conflicting boundaries between public and private (Baumann, 2010, p. 9) and the context in which it is negotiated. As society undergoes rapid transformation through the medium of the internet, so also is privacy again being placed under stress as it is redefined. Criticisms of these new and evolving forms of privacy are often made as a reaction against change, what Burkart refers to as a “bourgeois critique of the conquest of the public space by an underclass or by members of popular culture” (Burkart, 2010, p. 31). Blatterer (2010, pp. 73-74) sees the making public of what was previously private as driven by a need to make oneself visible, both because we now exist in an attention economy and because visibility grants social recognition, though the needs of visibility and privacy remain in ‘significant tension’. Social networking makes this redefinition possible, rather than causes it. Technology aids the human need to validate a person’s identity (Blatterer, 2010, p. 82).

Gross and Acquisti (2005, p.2) note some fundamental differences between online social networking and offline, observing that online relationships are often unnuanced and forced to fit a binary public/private categorisation whereby social ties are reduced to ‘Friend or not’. Online communities, however, modify previous binaries, extending them rather than erasing them. Strong and weak ties still exist, but their reach in a virtual environment can be vastly greater, especially in relation to creating weak ties (Gross & Acquisti, 2005, p. 3). In 2007 Dwyer, Hiltz and Passerini (p. 2)conducted a small non-random survey that showed users of social networking sites are concerned about privacy but that privacy online is different, especially since there is a record maintained of everything that takes place. This seems to lead to people being less strict about what information is made available, even though they remain aware of the issue (Dwyer, Hiltz & Passerini, 2007, p. 4).

This redefinition of privacy is not an either/or situation where information can be irretrievably defined as always and only ‘public’ or ‘private’. Lange (2008, p. 364) in a paper analysing YouTube discusses Nissenbaum’s idea of ‘contextual integrity’: how concepts of private/public are context dependent and variable across multiple mediators such as culture and time so that privacy cannot exist without consideration of the social mediators it is taking place in. The private/public duality is not monolithic, not even in the case of an individual (what is private in one situation with one group may be public when dealing with a different situation and group). Lange (2008, pp. 370-372) categorises YouTube as being either ‘publicly private’ or ‘privately public’. In the first, she means open information about the identity of the poster, but with ‘encoded’ or hidden information in the video that can be interpreted only by those already part of the poster’s friends. Privately public, in contrast, presents a more open or immediately accessible video, while identity information is suppressed – in effect obscuring identity. These forms allow users to control or allow access to their videos and, by implication, their identity without the more limited controls the site offers through options such as ‘Friends only’ (Lange, 2008, p. 376). While Lange does not mention it, there is no reason for other conjunctions: ‘privately private’ and ‘publicly public’ are also options on the continuum of choices which are not addressed in her paper.

Privacy online is being created through a tension between technology and social needs. Livingstone (2008, p.9) investigated use of social networking amongst a small group of UK teenagers, writing that teenagers are deeply concerned about privacy but also wish to make themselves public in different ways from previous generations, such as in the style of their profile pages or via mobile phones . Their nuanced view of privacy is, however, subverted by rigid categories imposed by social networking sites into ‘Friends’ or ‘Others’ (Livingstone, 2008, p. 10). This situation is further challenged by the apparent fact that ‘internet natives’ – those whose lives have always included the internet as a technology – are often unfamiliar with the ‘code’ of that technology (Livingstone, 2008, pp. 11-12) leading to restricted choices in privacy settings or not utilizing options to their fullest. In the early twentieth century radio hams built their own sets and comprehended the technology; today the majority just know that radios work and use them. While this makes the technology easier to use it can also, as Livingstone reports (2008, p. 12), lead to missed opportunities as the options available are overlooked or not understood and thus ignored.

Notions of privacy not only shift from situation to situation but also, in the context of social networking, are at present extremely fluid. Fogel and Nehmad (2009, p.159) note increased privacy concern compared with earlier studies, while a recent Australian survey by McNair Ingenuity Research (2011) shows it has become a greater concern. Privacy online was a concern to participants with 77% having adjusted their privacy settings in some way (McNair Ingenuity Research, 2011, p. 20). Only one third, though, have actually read their site’s privacy policy and terms (McNair Ingenuity Research, 2011, p. 19) with the other two thirds either not having read them or being unsure if they have. Respondents were also asked about how concerned they were regarding others accessing their personal data. Employers, friends and government agencies rated broadly the same, with around half being ‘somewhat concerned’ or ‘very concerned’, but the response rose to over 70% in relation to advertisers or corporations (McNair Ingenuity Research, 2011, pp. 24-25). Clearly, these are much more of a privacy issue to social network participants. At the same time, Facebook has been continually lifting restrictions on its information sharing, making more types of data available to more people, including those who are not part of social networks (Opsahl, 2010). While media reports of privacy violations or readily available information being used to a person’s embarrassment are probably no more common than such situations have always been, the studies noted above show privacy is becoming a clearer priority for users.

Social networking sites by their very nature involve sharing information for the surveillance of others – what Albrechtslund (2008) terms ‘participatory surveillance’ (my emphasis). In contrast to hierarchical surveillance where someone is ‘watched over’, social networking encourages mutual surveillance. Companies, however, act as agencies outside of this structure continuing the hierarchical model.

What this new paradigm of private/public makes available is a mass of interconnected data, and this is where the concern about commercial use by companies and marketers becomes the real threat to online privacy. Facebook’s Privacy Policy (Facebook, 2011) notes that substantial data concerning social relationships – pokes, ‘likes’, tagging, uploads, ‘conversion tracking’ (monitoring interaction with advertisements) – are just some of the data collection and sharing that takes place with Facebook and third parties. In the rush to join Facebook it is often forgotten that Facebook is a company with commercial aims and not just a collectively generated website. Facebook’s primary income source is currently selling targeted advertising. Jeremiah Owyang, reported by USA Today (Swartz, 2010), describes Facebook as a conundrum: “To win marketing dollars, it has to be open. But the social contract with the users is that it is closed, and there are permissions.” It may be social networking, but it is not socialist networking. Boyd (2010) notes how the internet and social networking makes available an almost incomprehensible amount of data about likes and dislikes, relationships, trends and activities. Through the use of software, and APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) that most social networking sites build in to their code, data mining becomes a relatively simple task. This is what Boyd terms ‘Big Data’. While she recognises a number of issues with such data collection and whether the aggregate is accurate or complete, she observes that collection of such data subverts the (online) social understanding and expectations of privacy. Companies treat the data as available and therefore free to use in any manner, yet the expectations of those who posted the information is often not the same. Social networking sites consist of disparate groups, but there are collective online privacy norms being negotiated by those users. Corporate data mining however derives from an old offline model where data was harder to come by. The corporations collect the new data, but are not active participants in the new privacy negotiations.

Marketers can optimize their returns by increasing the relevance of their advertisements to individuals (Domingos and Richardson, 2001, p. 1). Marketing decisions are made based on the influence and relationships a person has to achieve greater cost effectiveness. The internet provides the ‘wealth of information’ from which this data can be mined (Domingos and Richardson, 2001, p. 2). Social networking, in particular, is a ‘rich source’ to obtain this data from (Domingos and Richardson, 2001, p. 3). Rather than providing a platform for creating identity, each user has a ‘network value’ (Domingos and Richardson, 2001, p. 6). The phraseology used here is telling: ‘wealth’, ‘rich’ and ‘value’. The language of finance and selling illuminates data mining, indicating its motivating purpose is increasing corporate profits by selling more goods. Data is ‘valuable’ precisely because it can be used to increase the value of a corporation.

Concerns about computer assisted data collection are not new. Clarke in 1988 coined the term ‘dataveillance’ (Clarke, 1988, p. 499) for the use of technology to capture data in monitoring or investigating people. Dataveillance is more efficient than conventional surveillance because it can be automated and is cheaper. This leads to the possibility of collecting even more data, simply because it is so easy and there is minimal cost involved (Clarke, 1988, p. 501). Monitoring mass data becomes even more valuable, as data can be easily correlated in order to target advertising to individual interests, locations and histories (Clarke, 1988, p. 504). Clarke writes in the context of governments and the legal system, but in 2011 the more immediate threat is from corporations who are now the most aggressive data collectors, and which often lack clear privacy regulations unlike legislation passed in the last few decades relating to government data collection.

Corporations can use this easily available data because laws trail technology and the formation of new social norms. As Brankovic and Estivill-Castro (1999, p. 1) argued as far back as 1999, legislation for privacy rights and data control seriously lag behind the capabilities of technology. They also demonstrate (Brankovic and Estivill-Castro, 1999, p. 2) how great a concern data mining is, quoting various surveys giving various rates of respondents from 70% up to 96% who are worried about their data being used for purposes they have not explicitly authorized (including commercial purposes) – in effect “hav(ing) lost control over their personal information”. In relation to privacy, however, the authors most pertinently note that privacy can be defined as the individual’s right to control their own information. Thus someone can post embarrassing or risqué photographs of themselves but this is done on the understanding of a group identification of privacy and publicity. When information from social networking communities is used by data mining, it is essentially appropriated without the consent of the online group, outside of that group and for a purpose not included as part of the new norms of privacy and exposure being negotiated online.

Media reports and moral panics would have us believe that social networking is the end of privacy and a path to all sorts of evils, but the concept of privacy (and its indissoluble partner, publicity) is being redefined by how we use and understand the technology, by the freedoms and limitations of the underlying code, and by the social interactions of participants. These participants appear to have a more open attitude to risk, but are also more likely to trust others (Fogel and Nehmad, 2009, p. 157). They have not, however, abandoned privacy, but have shifted its boundaries, in effect challenging the dominant (offline) discourse of privacy. In 2007 Boyd observed that youth (and social networking site usage very much correlates inversely with age) are concerned with two types of audience: authority figures, and predators. Boyd (2007, p. 3) notes that the main threat from predators is not sexual, but ‘marketers, scammers and spammers’. While one is being portrayed as a major threat by mainstream media, users are more concerned with the real and already existing threat that marketers represent to the development of a new, mutual, discourse of privacy.

Online privacy is not a negation, but rather a shifting of meanings with positive outcomes. The sharing of information on social networking sites, Thompson (2008) observes, can be considered a way of better understanding oneself, while Fuchs (2010, pp. 779-780) posits an evolutionary development of web technology with the current state’s defining characteristic being co-operation. These processes are creating, aiding and being used to redefine privacies in this transitional period from non-networked relationships to online and offline relationships. The biggest threat to this redefinition, and one which the online community recognises, is the concurrent opportunity for marketers to utilise this online space for outside purposes. Who will win or, as is more likely, how privacy will continue to evolve to encompass these conflicting goals, will be an interesting journey.

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