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Category: Privacy (Gossip & Shaming)

5

Bullet, So Not Dodged

The question that I had been dreading came at last: “Mom, can I have a Facebook page?”  My daughter provided a strong defense: she’s 13, so she meets Facebook’s Terms of Service age requirement; she’s nearly an adult in her religion’s eyes (her bat mitzvah is in a week); past practices proves she’s responsible; and well, she feels ready.  (And I just discovered, she’s done her homework: see this Yahoo Answers! “My mom won’t let me get a Facebook page, how do I convince her?” thread that I found on my computer).

Next came the conversation.  We talked about how increasingly social media activity is part of one’s life’s biography.  Anything said and done in social network spaces becomes part of who you are in our Information Age.  Colleges may ask for your Facebook password.  Over 70% of employers look at social media data for interviewing and hiring (and sad to say, the outcomes are grim for applicants who over 60% of the time don’t get the interview or job due to social network profiles).  It’s not just what you post that speaks volumes — your social network (friends and their friends) tells some of your story for you.  There goes any control that you thought you had.  FB users often wrestle with whether they should de-friend those whose online personas don’t match their sensibilities (or the way in which they want others to perceive them).  This means that users need to keep a careful eye on their friends’ profiles (as well as ever-changing privacy settings).

That’s a lot of responsibility.  Or, as Bill Keller of the New York Times put it when he allowed his 13-year old daughter to join Facebook, he felt “a little as if I had passed my child a pipe of crystal meth.”  Beyond the potential privacy and reputational concerns that accompany social media use, an online life has other potential perils, like overuse (and thus inattention to studies, face-to-face family time, etc.) that cyber-pessimists underscore (see Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows).  And bullying, serious harassment, bigotry increasingly appear in mainstream social media in ways that kids can’t necessarily avoid (my work explores those problems, see here, here, and here, as well as terrific work by guest bloggers Ari Waldman and Mary Anne Franks).  Of course, there’s also lots of positive stuff emerging from these networked spaces.  Social media outlets like Facebook allow us to enact our personalities.  They let us express ourselves in ever-changing and expanding ways.  FB and other outlets host civic engagement as Helen Norton and I have emphasized.

I wonder, too, if my kid has a meaningful choice.  Can digital natives really stay away from social media if all of their friends socialize there?  And will employers and colleges expect that applicants partake in these activities because everyone else does?  Someday, will resisting having a Facebook profile express something negative about you?  Will it signal that you’re not socially adjusted or successful?  As Scott Peppet underscores in his work, we may be forced to give up our privacy to show that we are indeed healthy, social, smart, and the like.  That’s a lot to process, right?  I’m going to chew on this a while.  Your thoughts are most welcome!

0

Technology Musings

Recently the New York Times carried a front page story about an eighth grade girl who foolishly took a nude picture of herself with her cell phone and sent it to a fickle boy – sexting. The couple broke up but her picture circulated among her schools mates with a text message “Ho Alert” added by a frenemy.  In less than 24 hours, “hundreds, possibly thousands, of students had received her photo and forwarded it. In short order, students would be handcuffed and humiliated, parents mortified and lessons learned at a harsh cost.”  The three students who set off the “viral outbreak” were charged with disseminating child pornography, a Class C felony.

The story struck a nerve, not only with the affected community, but with the Times’ readers as well.  Stories about the misuse and dangers of technology provide us with opportunities to educate our students, and us. In a Washington State sexting incident, for example, the teen charged had to prepared a public service statement warning other teens about sexting to avoid harsher criminal penalties.  But the teen’s nude photo is still floating around.  Information has permanence on the internet.

Few of us appreciate how readily obtainable our personal information is on the internet.   Read More

4

The Sext Wars: Consent, Secrecy, and Privacy

The sexting phenomenon reveals much about contemporary social attitudes towards sexual expression, consent, and privacy, especially with regard to minors. One of the most troubling aspects of the debate over what can and should be done about “sexting-gone-bad” scenarios is the tendency to treat the parties involved as more or less moral and legal equivalents. A typical “sexting-gone-bad” scenario is one in which a young person takes an intimate cellphone photograph of him- or herself, forwards it to an actual or potential romantic interest, and discovers that this photograph has been forwarded to many other individuals, including strangers, classmates, and family members. There are at least four distinct categories of individuals involved in such a scenario: the creator of the image, the intended recipient, the distributor, and the unintended recipient. The second and third categories are sometimes the same person, but not always, and the number of individuals in the fourth category is potentially enormous. The legal response in many of the first sexting cases was to bring child pornography charges (creation, distribution, or possession) against all the individuals involved; the social response has likewise treated the various players as roughly morally equivalent. In some sexting cases, the distributors of the images have not been charged at all, whereas the creators have been. The view that the creators of sexual cellphone images are as bad as or worse than the distributors of those images combines many  troubling social attitudes about sexual expression and privacy.

First and most obviously, child pornography is clearly not the right frame of reference for the majority of these cases. The specter of child pornography, rightly invoked in relationships marked by coercion, exploitation, and serious asymmetries of age and power, is too often applied to any situation involving minors and sexuality. Whatever legitimate concerns society might have about sexual activity among consenting teenagers of roughly the same age, they should be clearly distinguished from concerns about pre-pubescent sexual activity and sexual contact between adults and children. The fact that the consequences of a conviction for child pornography include lifelong registration as a sex offender illustrates how poorly suited child porn charges are for most sexting cases.

Thankfully, states have begun to move away from the knee-jerk use of child pornography charges in sexting cases, but the treatment of creators as equal to or worse than distributors persists in both legal and social responses to sexting. The most alarming feature of this equivalence is its erasure of the significance of consent. In the typical sexting scenario (I leave to one side what I would call “harassment sexting” and deal only with images that the creator reasonably believes are welcome) a minor makes a choice to reveal herself sexually to one other person. We may think her choice is unwise or unduly motivated by social pressure, but we must recognize that it is in any event a consensual sexual act (barring extreme youth or mental incapacity). By contrast, the person who distributes the image to other individuals acts not only without consent but most often with the full knowledge and intent that the creator will be humiliated by the distribution. Thus, the distributor engages in a non-consensual sexual act. There is nothing equivalent about consensual and non-consensual sexual acts -  the person who sends an image of herself to another person is not equally or more responsible than the person who takes that image and forwards it to hundreds of others. To hold otherwise is to engage in victim-blaming, whether the act in question is sexting or sexual assault. A civilized society recognizes that a person subjected to non-consensual sexual activity should not be scrutinized for what she wore, how much she drank, whom she flirted with, or whether she sent someone a sexual image of herself. The only proper and relevant question is whether she consented to the act in question. Read More

0

New Privacy Law Reference Book: Privacy Law Fundamentals

Professor Paul Schwartz (Berkeley School of Law) and I recently published a new book, PRIVACY LAW FUNDAMENTALS.  This book is a distilled guide to the essential elements of U.S. data privacy law. In an easily-digestible format, the book covers core concepts, key laws, and leading cases.

The book explains the major provisions of all of the major privacy statutes, regulations, cases, including state privacy laws and FTC enforcement actions. It provides numerous charts and tables summarizing the privacy statutes (i.e. statutes with private rights of action, preemption, and liquidated damages, among other things). Topics covered include: the media, domestic law enforcement, national security, government records, health and genetic data, financial information, consumer data and business records, government access to private sector records, data security law, school privacy, employment privacy, and international privacy law.

This book provides an concise yet comprehensive overview of the field of privacy law for those who do not want to labor through lengthy treatises.  Paul and I worked hard to keep it under 200 pages — our goal was to include a lot of information yet do so as succinctly as possible.   PRIVACY LAW FUNDAMENTALS is written for those who want a handy reference, a bird’s eye view of the field, or a primer for courses in privacy law.

We wrote this book to be a useful reference for practitioners — ideally, a book they’d keep at the corner of their desks or in their briefcases.

We also think it can serve as a useful study aid for students taking privacy law courses.

You can check it out here, where you can download the table of contents.

0

Salutary Legislative Efforts to Permit Pseudonymous Litigation

Cyber harassment often invades victims’ privacy by exposing their sensitive personal information, revealing photographs, and the like.  Because search engines reproduce information cached online, time’s passage cannot alleviate their reputational, emotional, and physical damage.  Unlike newspapers, which were once only easily accessible in libraries after their publication, search engines now index all content on the web, and can produce it instantaneously.  Victims must live with digital privacy invasions that are deeply humiliating, reputation-harming, and potentially dangerous, as well as searchable and accessible from anywhere, and by anyone, in the world.  Often, the information is taken out of context, producing a distorted and damaging view of the person.

While lawsuits can serve to redress victims for these harms, they also risk compounding the severity of these privacy problems.  Law often permits victims to sue perpetrators for intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, and defamation.  But victims typically must bring such civil lawsuits in their own names.  As a result, the complaints, which are available to the press and interested individuals, further publicize the cyber harassment, exacerbating the privacy harms suffered by victims.  In turn, victims may refrain from pursuing their harassers in court not because they lack legitimate claims but because they fear exposing themselves to further privacy invasions.

Hawaii’s proposed Senate Bill 288, if enacted, could be invoked to combat this problem when the online harassment occurs in domestic abuse cases.  The bill would permit pseudonymous papers “in cases of alleged domestic abuse where the alleged victim has already received an order of protection, temporary restraining order, or protective order against the accused party.”  The bill covers cases where pseudonymous filing is “reasonably necessary to protect the privacy of the alleged victim and will not unduly prejudice the prosecution of the defense.”  The proposed legislation permits victims of domestic abuse, including cases involving online harassment, to bring law’s coercive power to bear against perpetrators.  Because the bill allows courts to weigh the victim’s interest in privacy against the public’s interest in disclosure, it aims to protect privacy and transparency.  Disappointingly, however, the bill only covers cases involving domestic abuse, thus failing to reach instances of online harassment involving privacy invasions where victims may refuse to sue their attackers for fear of publicity.


5

The Ugly Persistence of Internet Celebrity

Many desperately try to garner online celebrity.  They host You Tube channels devoted to themselves. They share their thoughts in blog postings and on social network sites.  They post revealing pictures of themselves on Flickr.  To their dismay though, no one pays much attention.  But for others, the Internet spotlight finds them and mercilessly refuses to yield ground.  For instance, in 2007, a sports blogger obtained a picture of a high-school pole vaulter, Allison Stokke, at a track meet and posted it online.  Within days, her picture spread across the Internet, from message boards and sport sites to porn sites and social network profiles.  Impostors created fake profiles of Ms. Stokke on social network sites, and Ms. Stokke was inundated with emails from interested suitors and journalists.  At the time, Ms. Stokke told the Washington Post that the attention felt “demeaning” because the pictures dominated how others saw her rather than her pole-vaulting accomplishments.

Time’s passage has not helped Stokke shake her online notoriety.  Sites continuously updated their photo galleries with pictures of Stokkes taken at track meets.  Blogs boasted of finding pictures of Stokke at college with headings like “Your 2010 Allison Stokke Update,” “Allison Stokke’s Halloween Cowgirl Outfit Accentuates the Total Package,” and “Only Known Allison Stokke Cal Picture Found.”  Postings include obscene language.  For instance, a Google search of her name on a safety setting yields 129,000 results while one with no safety setting has 220,000 hits.  Encyclopedia Dramatica has a wiki devoted to her (though Wikipedia has faithfully taken down entries about Ms. Stokke).

Read More

2

The Offensive Internet

Harvard University Press recently published The Offensive Internet: Speech, Privacy, and Reputation, a collection of essays edited by Saul Levmore and Martha Nussbaum.  Frank Pasquale, Dan Solove, and I have chapters in the book as do Saul Levmore, Martha Nussbaum, Cass Sunstein, Anupam Chander, Karen Bradshaw and Souvik Saha, Brian Leiter, Geoffrey Stone, John Deigh, Lior Strahilevitz, and Ruben Rodrigues.  Stanley Fish just reviewed the book at New York Times.com.

6

The Year in Privacy Books 2010

Here’s a list of notable privacy books published in 2010.

Previous lists:

Privacy Books 2009

Privacy Books 2008

This list contains a few books published late in 2009 that I missed on the 2009 list.

Adam D. Moore, Privacy Rights: Moral and Legal Foundations (Penn. St. U. Press 2010)


My blurb: “Privacy Rights is a lucid and compelling examination of the right to privacy.  Adam Moore provides a theoretically rich and trenchant account of how to reconcile privacy with competing interests such as free speech, workplace productivity, and security.”

Cass Sunstein, On Rumors (Farrar , Strauss and Giroux 2009)


A very short essay on the damage wrought by false online rumors and a discussion of how and why such rumors spiral out of control, such as the phenomena of social cascades and group polarization.  The book is worth reading, but quite short for a book (only 88 pages of primary text, in a very tiny book the size of a paperback).

Stewart Baker, Skating on Stilts: Why We Aren’t Stopping Tomorrow’s Terrorism (Hoover Institution Press 2010)


A provocative argument for stronger security protections and a vigorous attack on privacy.  The arguments against privacy are often glib and dismissive, but the book is worth reading for Baker’s extensive personal experience dealing with the issues.


Christena Nippert-Eng, Islands of Privacy (U. Chicago 2010)


A fascinating sociological account of people’s attitudes toward privacy and their behaviors with regards to preserving their privacy.  It contains numerous interviews, quoted copiously, of people in their own voices discussing how they conceal their secrets.  Engaging and compelling reading.


Hal Niedzviecki, The Peep Diaries: How We’re Learning to Love Watching Ourselves and Our Neighbors (City Lights Press 2009)


This book is an extended essay on self-exposure online.  It is filled with many interesting anecdotes.  The book has a journalistic style and raises observations and questions more than it proposes solutions or policies.  The “notes” at the end consist only of a brief bibliography for each chapter, and there are no indications of which facts in the book came from which particular sources — a pet peeve of mine.

Bill Bryson, At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Doubleday 2010)


An extensive history of the home, which as I’ve explored in some of my own writings, plays an important role in the history of privacy.  Bryson’s narrative reads well, but he only supplies a bibliography at the end — no endnotes or indications of the sources of particular facts and details.  I find this practice to be quite problematic for a work of history.

Shane Harris, The Watchers: The Rise of America’s Surveillance State (Penguin 2010)


An engaging narrative that chronicles the surveillance and security measures the United States undertook after 9/11.  Filled with interesting facts, the book reads like a story.

Robin D. Barnes, Outrageous Invasions: Celebrites’ Private Lives, Media, and the Law (Oxford 2010)


There are some very interesting parts of this book, but it at times seems like a grab bag of topics relating to celebrities and its central argument could use more development.  Nevertheless, it is worth reading because it discusses some interesting cases and explores comparative legal perspectives on the issues.


David Kirkpatrick, The Facebook Effect (Simon& Schuster 2010)


A fascinating account of the rise of Facebook.  There are times when Kirkpatrick seems too sympathetic to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, but overall, this book is illuminating and engaging.

Viktor Mayer-Schonberger, Delete: The Virtue of Forgetting in the Digital Age (Princeton 2009)


An interesting discussion of the “right to be forgotten.”  Some of the ground in this book appears to be already well-trodden, but Mayer-Schonberger’s keen insights on data retention and destruction make it a worthy addition to the literature.

3

Unwitting Mashup of Facebook and Juicy Campus?

In a move that recalls the postings on the now-defunct Juicy Campus, Facebook groups devote themselves to vulgar descriptions of female high school students.  As Donna St. George of the Washington Post reported on November 11, a Facebook page targeted 30 female students from the T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia.  It featured photographs of the students accompanied by “offensive or sexual comments.”  Another similar page included a picture of the school’s female principal.  The Daily Beast recently reported that Choate Rosemary Hall boarding school banned access to Facebook through campus computers after discovering a 200-plus-page-long threat penned by female students that disparaged fellow female students.  The Facebook page described Choate students as “hos” and “gross and faked and spray tanned.”

Facebook’s Terms of Service requires users to agree to refrain from bullying, intimidating, or harassing other users.”  Pursuant to that policy (or so we can guess), Facebook took down the page of the 30 girls with the sexually demeaning comments five days after T.C. Williams High School’s principal filed a complaint with Facebook.  Despite Facebook’s real-name culture, the author of the Facebook page has not been identified, an unsurprising result given the advantages provided ill-meaning individuals who want to evade responsibility for online activity.  In the boarding school matter, it seems that a student copied the thread, publishing it for the consumption of students (and everyone else) who were not privy to the Facebook page.  According to the Daily Beast, school administrators “hired a computer forensics expert to track how it had been made public.”  Two of the girls who wrote the post were expelled and four were suspended.

In the T.C. Williams High School matter, the principal went on the school’s PA system for two days in a row to let students know that she thought the page was “totally offensive.”  The Washington Post reports that the principal also asked students to avoid accessing it: “We’re better than this,” she told the students.  If that is all the principal did, it seems a weak showing of moral leadership and civic education.  Hopefully, the incident began a longer-term conversation about many things, including bullying, gender harassment, the risks of online activities, and the responsibilities of students while online.  Now, the school officials’ response in the Choate matter is worth discussing.  Norm Pattis, a Connecticut trial lawyer, contends that the school’s response is too harsh given the dire consequences of a school expulsion on a student’s chances of getting into college.  Prohibiting Facebook on campus may also be an empty gesture.  On the one hand, Choate students have continued to tweet and tumbl on their school accounts.  They also can access social media including Facebook on their mobile devices, raising the same concerns of online civility.  On the other, as Pattis suggests, the school missed a crucial teaching opportunity (beyond a 90-minute discussion with students) on how to be leaders, rather than the quick fix of banning Facebook on the campus network.  That sounds right to me, too.

9

Opting Out Isn’t Socially Neutral Anymore

Various news outlets are reporting that Google “fans” in Germany have been egging the roughly 3% of houses whose inhabitants have chosen to opt out of Google’s Street View mapping feature.

Why?

Apparently the vandals left notes saying “Google is cool.”  So maybe this is just a “how dare you question anything Google?” protest.

But more likely it is something more. Jeff Jarvis on Buzz Machine recently labeled opting out of Street View the equivalent of “digital desecration,” saying that such “embarassing” “assaults” on the public “saddened and angered” him. It seems plausible that these vandals agree; “their” information has been taken from them by others asserting privacy interests, and they’re penalizing those who opt out for denying them what they view as theirs.

As Kashmir Hill put it on Forbes, “[i]t’s ironic that those who wanted more privacy through blurring their homes wound up getting less of it.”  Ironic, maybe. Surprising, not really. I’ve been making the argument here all month that opting out is not a privacy solution in many circumstances, because the act of opting out is itself visible to (and itself conveys information to) others. This is based on my forthcoming paper Unraveling Privacy; I’ve given examples from Mexico’s experiment with biometric retina recognition and from the quantified self / sensor movement. Egging is just a more crude version; in this example, it’s not that those who opted out are the “worst” members of a given pool (as in true unraveling scenarios) and are therefore discriminated against, but simply that others are pushing back against the right to opt out itself because it impedes unfettered access to all the information they want.

What’s next? If you won’t stream real-time data about your health (do you have the flu? other communicable diseases?) into your vicinity to warn others to walk on the other side of the street, will people heckle you? If you won’t display your criminal record prominently in digital form so that others can “see” (using their digital devices) whether you’re a sex offender or felon of some sort, will they assume you’re a criminal (unraveling) or harrass you for your “privacy” (like the German eggers)?  As I argue in Unraveling Privacy, the politics of privacy are getting more complicated; as some people increasingly share information about themselves, they will make attributions about those who do not — and potentially retaliate against them as well.