(Mis)adventures in context collapse: A personal reflection on discussing #BlackLivesMatter on Facebook

Cross-posted from Medium

We’re living in scary times. Terrorism in Europe. Rape on college campuses. Police violence in the U.S. Cop-killing in Canada. The most polarizing U.S. election in my lifetime. And that’s barely scratching the surface.

We’re also living in polarized times. Our lived experiences and scientific research tell us that we live in media echo chambers, surrounded by points of view we already agree with. We post, share and like in violent agreement with our friends without actually hearing, much less listening to, other points of view. The public sphere has imploded, and some days it feels like we’ve collectively given up on civil discourse.

We’re living in times where you can share a thought before you’ve fully thought it through, zing it out around the world on social media and belatedly realize you stepped in it. That you should have contextualized *why* you shared someone else’s thought without providing your own. That a like would have been sufficient. That just because you read a thing and thought it was interesting, doesn’t mean you have to share it. That being tired and multitasking is never a great plan, especially not when Facebook and violence are involved.

Last Friday I stepped in it a bit. I started the day ok, with a short post expressing what the slogan #BlackLivesMatter means to me, why it matters when white people affirm it, and how it all relates to human rights. So far, so good. It felt good to see the likes and supportive comments roll in.

But then I hit “share” on a few memes and posts from other people without contextualizing whether I agreed with every word choice, or if I was sharing them as “food for thought,” or what. I shared before I thought. That was dumb. It was human, but it was also pretty dumb.

I forgot that my 892 Facebook friends don’t share the same cultural understanding of the world, that they exist in very different contexts where the same meme means very different things. Some of that may be due to the echo chambers I mentioned earlier, but mostly it’s because I’m lucky to have a very diverse groups of friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. I have friends with high school educations and PhDs. Atheists, Muslims, Christians and Jews. People who only use Facebook for selfies and cat memes, and people who use it for political commentary and debate. Black parents who fear their sons might get shot by a cop, a self-appointed vigilante or some dude with a gun who hates hip hop. Members of the military and law enforcement who put their lives on the line to serve their countries and communities. Their loved ones who know the toll that service takes, and who fear the man or woman they love might not come home one day.

My forgetting all this is all the more inexcusable because I (should) know better. I’ve spent my life bouncing around countries, contexts and cultures. I have degrees in communication, of both the international and regular variety. I’ve read the work by danah boyd, Alice Marwick, Michael Wesch, and others on context collapse online — the discomfort that comes with interacting with your parents, your boss, your drinking buddies, and that one kid from high school who grew up be a Trump voter on the same platform. I thought I had a plan to manage it, using Facebook’s granular privacy settings like only someone who reads privacy policies for a living would do (it’s a weird line of work I’m in, I know).

Facebook recently announced changes to the News Feed algorithm prioritizing personal Facebook content like selfies, vacation photos, and pet videos over news. At first it seemed to me like a cop-out, a way to avoid the hard work of getting it right when it comes to censorship, appearance of political bias, etc. I mostly use Facebook for reading recommendations from my friends who are interested in the same issues I am, or who know way more than I do about things that I want to learn more about. Issues like the Black Lives Matter movement and the context of systemic racism that surrounds it. For that, I appreciate political discourse on Facebook.

On the other hand, if Facebook were only for cuteness and pop culture, maybe the echo chambers would be just a little more permeable. Maybe there would be less armchair punditry (including my own) and we could have more thoughtful, nuanced conversations using a common set of facts as evidence. On that Facebook maybe I wouldn’t feel like I need a publicist to stop me from sticking my foot in my mouth. There could even be an alternate reality where I’d never have conversations involving the terms “personal brand,” “thought leader” or “public intellectual.” Maybe. But for that we’d have to get rid of cable news, too, and more.

Granted, no one is making me post political content to Facebook. Certainly lots of people have strict “no politics on social media” rules for themselves. I respect that. The problem is that not only am I an opinionated loudmouth (if the past is any indication, that seems unlikely to change), I’m also a scholar and activist focusing on human rights and the Internet. One of the great joys of my life is having intellectual discussions with my colleagues. Because they’re spread around the planet, these conversations happen on Facebook. This is a point I want to stress: for many of my friends and colleagues, this is what Facebook is for, the main reason we open that damn mobile app far too many times a day.

Now I get to why I felt compelled to share a barrage of “Black Lives Matter” posts and memes, including a few that I didn’t fully agree with every word. For months now, some of the recurring themes of the political discussions my friends have on Facebook have been the importance of the privileged (that means me) extending comfort to the oppressed and the threatened in their times of need, amplifying the voices of those who are silenced, and stressing that it is not the job of the oppressed to comfort those among the privileged who can’t stand being confronted by their privilege. Generally speaking, I try to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. One eloquent post that I read (but did not share) offered this exhortation to reshare content from black voices:

But I hope you do say something, even if it’s just a share (often, amplifying black voices is better than adding your own, so it’s win-win), and if you still don’t want to, I just want to make sure that you understand that it’s not about changing anything. It’s not about presuming you have power or influence in some grandstanding way that people will roll their eyes at (even if they do, and some of them will). It’s not about thinking you’re important or that people are listening to you. It’s about simply showing up for these people and making them feel less unheard and less alone.

I think that’s on point, and that was the guiding thought in my mind on Friday as I shared and re-posted words written by others. I stand by that sentiment. Many white people in the U.S., and many people of all backgrounds outside of the U.S., don’t seem to be acknowledging that the feelings of fear and outrage driving the Black Lives Matter movement are rooted in reality. White Americans don’t see this first hand, as John Scalzi illustrates, just as men don’t experience sexual harassment and rape culture the way women do. That’s why we need to listen to what Americans of color have to say, even when it’s uncomfortable, especially when we don’t agree with every word. For many white Americans, talking about race is extremely difficult, just as talking about gender is extremely difficult for many men. But if we can’t have those conversations with our friends and families, how are we going to have them in the broader society? And we must. That is the real, hard work of politics at its best. We’ve had far too much of politics at its abject worst lately.

These conversations are difficult for everyone, including for me. To me, that highlights that we must have them. I’ve been very gratified the past 24 hours by the private conversations I’ve had with friends and family. Conversations that started in a place of mutual incomprehension, but ultimately left all parties involved (I think) feeling heard and valued, and having learned something important. I wouldn’t have had those conversations if they hadn’t started on Facebook.

So I’ll continue having hard conversations online, including on Facebook. I can’t promise I’ll always get everything right, but I promise that I’ll try. Since amid all the horror of last week, the world also lost Elie Wiesel, I’ll give him the last word:

We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere. When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant. Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must — at that moment — become the center of the universe.

After Dallas, it is more important than ever for white people to affirm that #BlackLivesMatter

Cross-posted from Medium.

black lives matterDeath is always tragic. Murder is always abhorrent. Shooting police officers for doing their jobs is reprehensible, as is the pattern (is that word even strong enough? No) of police violence against black Americans in the US. Outside of any slogan, in the normal conversational sense, of course all lives have meaning. Of course all people matter. All people have human rights. That’s not up for debate with me.

But as a political slogan, in the current US climate, saying that “all lives matter” is a deliberate erasure of the fact that in the US, right now, black lives are valued as less than. We see this in our schools, in our legal system, in our prisons, in our media, in health outcomes, everywhere in our culture. This is systemic racism. It exists not because individual white people are racist (though many are), but because the system is rigged. That’s the legacy of our history. No one alive today created this system, but those of us who benefit from it (that means me) have a moral duty to recognize this reality, to check our privilege, and to listen to what the humans at the receiving end of this structural violence have to say.

I realize the irony of getting on my soapbox to say that us white people need to listen more. I do it because my friends and colleagues who are people of color tell me that it matters to them when white people (try to) amplify their voices. Because that’s the only way that some white people will ever hear this message. Because to have said something after Orlando, as I did, and to stay silent now would be even worse. Because as someone who claims to be a human rights activist, to stay silent about this would be racist.

Saying that “black lives matter” is an affirmation that black lives SHOULD matter as much as other lives, especially as white lives. Right now, in America, today, they don’t. Not as much as white lives do, or -indeed- as blue ones do. Saying that “black lives matter” is not a claim that other lives (including police lives) don’t matter. If you hear it that way, I’d encourage you to think about why that is. I’d be happy to have a mutually respectful conversation about it, in whatever medium you prefer.

The dream of universal human rights is about erasing the age-old reality that life is a zero-sum game. That you can only win if someone else loses. We should all keep dreaming, but it is the responsibility of each and every one of us to do our part.

I’ll stop talking now.

I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again: the FBI doesn’t get encryption

James Baker, Alvaro Bedoya, and David Garrow
James Baker, Alvaro Bedoya, and David Garrow

At last Friday’s Color of Surveillance conference, FBI General Counsel James A. Baker called for checks on government power to prevent the kinds of abuses discussed during the conference’s historically focused panels, notably COINTELPRO, surveillance of the civil rights and anti-war movements, and the intimidation of activist leaders — including Martin Luther King, Jr. But he also asked if we, as a society, are okay with the public security implications of unbreakable encryption. That question, and the assumptions behind it, exemplifies why the FBI doesn’t get encryption.

The question assumes that there are objective, measurable costs to unbreakable encryption. More fundamentally, it also assumes that untraceable communication is new, when it is anything but: for most of human history, communication was either oral or written on artifacts that had to be physically transported. Encryption is better understood as a return to the pre-digital status quo, when records were the exception rather than the rule, and the secrecy of correspondence was a sacrosanct rule. Far from “going dark,” we are living in a golden age of surveillance, and we don’t need to go all the way back to the Church Report to find evidence that institutional checks on the government’s power are insufficient. Yet last week Baker reiterated the bewildering claim that the FISA court is a meaningful check on NSA surveillance, when it serves as a rubber stamp at best.

The FBI argues certain investigations would be easier to conduct if the public communicated in the clear. The recent brouhaha over the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone 5c provides one such example. But the argument falls apart on close examination.

The security community has said from the beginning that the FBI never needed Apple’s help unlocking the Farook phone. It was always about setting a legal precedent that they can compel companies to break their own products. The Farook phone presented a unique opportunity as a test case: it was very unlikely to contain new useful information (it was a work phone, and Farook had physically destroyed his two personal phones; neither the 30-day iCloud backup nor the call/SMS metadata revealed any non-work activity associated with that device), but it was connected to an ongoing investigation, and the FBI could plausibly argue that the phone might contain crucial information, thus playing on the media and the public’s fear of terrorism and poor understanding of the underlying tech issues. The case’s conclusion supports this interpretation, as does the fanciful nature of some of the FBI’s arguments (I’m still waiting for an explanation of what a “dormant cyber pathogen” might be).

What seems likely is that the FBI’s leadership, which has been fighting a losing battle against encryption for decades, had been waiting for the right opportunity to push for a court ruling requiring a private company to hack its own product, and thought the Farook phone would get them what they wanted. They miscalculated, and found an out that would allow them to save face with respect to the general public. The experts of course know that the FBI has egg all over its face, but the FBI doesn’t care what experts think. It’s going for a political win, and we are clearly living in a post-empirical political environment.

The U.S. is currently governed by fear and emotion, rather than facts. Terrorism and child abuse imagery are probably the most frequently invoked horsemen of the infocalypse these days. Senator Dianne Feinstein — whose anti-encryption draft bill was leaked on Friday as well — has raised the bogeyman of a pedophile communicating with her grandchildren through their gaming consoles to justify banning encryption. But it is just that, a bogeyman: there are many more effective ways to protect children from predators (including appropriate parental controls on devices used by children, and talking to kids about risks both online and in the real world, for example) that neither sacrifice the security and privacy of millions of individuals, nor jeopardize society’s ability to evolve and change. She has similarly claimed that the terrorist cell behind the Paris and Brussels attacks used encryption, when in fact it seems that their op-sec relied on burner phones, insecure tools like Facebook and on face-to-face communication. It seems that European law enforcement’s tragic failure to prevent the recent attacks should be attributed to poor coordination between agencies (much as 9/11 was), not encryption.

So these “costs of unbreakable encryption” are neither proven, nor unavoidable through other means, nor different from the world humanity was stuck with until the 1990s. They certainly aren’t worth the costs of mass surveillance, which are well known. Without going into the abuses by the Stasi, the KGB, or Sisi’s Egypt — parallels that are often rejected in the name of American exceptionalism — the mass surveillance revealed by Snowden in 2013 comes at significant, measurable costs to the American economy. Studies also support the notion that the chilling effect — self-censorship due to the perception of surveillance — is real.  As Alvaro Bedoya pointed out in his conversation with Baker last Friday, being a black civil rights activist was effectively against the law during the COINTELPRO era.

As Yochai Benkler laid out in a recent article, “the fact of the matter is that institutional systems are highly imperfect, no less so than technological systems, and only a combination of the two is likely to address the vulnerability of individuals to the diverse sources of power and coercion they face.” We already know that institutional checks on surveillance powers are insufficient, even in democracies, and yes, even in the United States. Unbreakable, ubiquitous encryption is the technical check on surveillance power. The FBI doesn’t need, and should not have, backdoor access to communications, warrant or not. It should find another way to do its job.

What we’re talking about when we talk about Hobby Lobby

I’ve spent much of the three days since the Hobby Lobby decision came down arguing with libertarians about healthcare. My extended social network contains very few outspoken religious conservatives, but is apparently replete with committed libertarians with varying degrees of writing fluency. While it would be easy to write a post listing the nonsensical arguments that have been mustered in defense of the Hobby Lobby decision (personal favorite: employer-provided health insurance is the same thing as employer-provided lunch), I think it’s far more interesting to probe the underlying assumptions, normative values and beliefs underlying these arguments.

In the interest of transparency, I’d like to present my own assumptions, normative values and beliefs as they necessarily underlie my critique of opposing arguments.

I believe that health care is a human right.

I also believe that the goal for society should be (among other things) to ensure equal access to quality healthcare for all humans in the society. This is a normative belief: what I believe *should* happen. Others, of course, may have different normative visions for society which will necessarily lead to different policy preferences. From what I have seen and read I have concluded that a universal single-payer system with some component of market competition is probably the most efficient, fair, and cost-effective way of achieving equitable access to healthcare. To my mind, disagreements about the minutia of regulating the current U.S. system (which, to be clear, comes closer to my ideal after the ACA than before it) are distractions from the main problem plaguing U.S. healthcare: access is inexorably tied to one’s employer (or one’s spouse’s employer, which puts unmarried workers at a disadvantage). This has several disadvantages: it creates a hierarchy of deservingness, where income inequality is compounded by unequal access to care; it burdens businesses with the responsibility of dealing with health insurers, which companies in other countries do not; and, since Hobby Lobby, it means that at least some employers can impose their religious beliefs on their employees.

The first wave of media coverage suggested that this only applied to those methods of contraception that the plaintiffs believed to be abortifacient: the so-called “morning after pill” and intra-uterine devices, but the Court quickly clarified that it intended the ruling to apply to all contraception — as long as the business owners sincerely believe the contraceptive method(s) in question to be against their religion — and only contraception, as religious objectors cannot (yet) be exempt from covering blood transfusions or vaccinations. This sets birth control apart from all other medical care as somehow less essential, and the people who use it less human, more Other.

Commenters have also been quick to point out that the ruling “only” applies to closely-held businesses. However, 90% of U.S. businesses are closely-held, employing 52% of the American workforce, as Mother Jones points out. Granted, many of these are small businesses that are not required to provide employees with health insurance, but the numbers are far greater than the “maybe 50 companies in the whole country” that one of my Facebook sparring partners claimed. And there are already signs that the religious right is hoping to expand the loophole even further.

The arguments mustered in support of the Hobby Lobby decision, at least in conversations that I’ve been part of, seem to fall under a few broad categories. Italics represent a direct quote.

This isn’t really a big deal

Employers weren’t required to cover contraception before 2013, so why is it such a big deal now?

It was a big deal. You just weren’t paying attention.

All that was done today was to rule that in a small % of cases the law infringed on the defined rights as per the constitution. You can say that it is sexist bullshit, and that is fine to believe, but this country was built to protect that sexist bullshit…and it is one of the few things that separate us from countries like Iran.

As noted above, this is not a small percentage of cases – it potentially applies to over half of the workforce. Moreover, protecting sexist bullshit is certainly not what separates us from Iran.

Contraception isn’t really healthcare

Saying that…from a public health perspective what does contraception offer? From a disease perspective only barrier methods reduce transmission rates, and since this is not “required”, then that is not the “focus”. The other use of contraception is to reduce pregnancy rates or to allow people to chose when to have a kid or not. The “choice” side does not provide a public health benefit, so you are left with 2 parts…one is the individual health in the case of people where a pregnancy would cause a health issue, and the second is the reduction in unwanted pregnancies. So…this really is about “population control” to some extent.

No, it’s really not. Birth control is an absolute requirement for women’s equal participation in the work force and in society. Moreover, pregnancy and childbirth are leading causes of mortality and morbidity for reproductive-age women in the United States and worldwide, especially in poor countries.

What is most galling to me is the not-always-so-implicit assumption that sex is either procreative or a risk behavior. Evidently the interests of monogamous couples who want to enjoy latex-free sex without risking pregnancy are frivolous for this crowd. This is obviously a normative moral judgment, and lots of people do believe that this is the case. Fine, they can live their values in their own lives. No one in the pro-contraception camp is saying that people ought to have monogamous, non-procreative sex if they don’t want to. We are saying that other people’s moral values should not impede us in our pursuit of happiness, which for many (most?) couples includes a fulfilling sex life.

You have to realize this has to be looked at from a “public health” perspective. The only way that the ACA holds together is that it was directed to increasing the public health.

“Increasing the public heath” includes contraceptive care, at least according to the overwhelming consensus of the medical profession.

There is no relationship between the employer’s and employees religion in this ruling, nor any “forcing” for them to do anything the employer requires. The absence of payment for a service is not the same as forcing them employee to abide by the religion of the employer.

The ruling is based on the employer’s religion and has a direct, material impact on employees. The ruling creates a relationship between the two where there was none before.

I’m absolutely certain that lunch and contraception are moral equivalents.

This one just leaves me speechless. Contraception and access to all food? Yes, absolutely. And in a context of famine or food insecurity, I can see the argument that food is more important than birth control (though high birthrates tend to compound food insecurity). But that is not what we are talking about here. We are talking about the availability of specific meals in a context where there are many options for obtaining food versus the availability of specific drugs and medical devices that must be used continuously to be effective. Before someone chimes in that Ella and Plan B are a one-time pill, that’s only true if you only have sex once. Moreover, any woman who’s taken the “morning after pill” will tell you that it’s an emergency back-up (hence the name…), and popping one every day is neither affordable ($50 per pill, on average) nor medically advisable, if only b/c of the nausea.

Contraception is easy to get, and all methods work the same

Nathalie…when you say contraception…do you mean condoms? Or “the pill”? Or an IUD/device? They are massively different in practice, but all perform the same basic function. Even the so called “morning after” pill is avail over the counter in most states (for those over 18). The problem is that everyone in the USA wants the “gold standard”, which yes requires a Dr’s note, etc. But sex is not a right, freedom of religion is. And yes, condoms are avail just about everywhere in the USA…so the argument that it is “not that easy” is not really true (I understand where you are coming from…but the argument is not valid).

Women want to make reproductive health decisions in consultation with their doctors and whomever else they choose to bring into the conversation (such as their partners, religious leaders, deities, etc). No one contraceptive method is right for all women or all couples, including condoms. Many contraceptives, notably the traditional hormonal birth control pill, have clinical uses beyond preventing pregnancy.

Moreover, from a public health perspective we know that condoms are typically used have a much higher failure rate than other methods of birth control. And from an individual rights perspective, many couples are not concerned about preventing STI transmission (monogamy) but are concerned about pregnancy. What sense does it make for them to use condoms, which are very effective at preventing disease transmission but less so at preventing pregnancy?

And finally, the whole point of classifying contraception as preventive care under the ACA is to exempt patients from having to pay for it on top of their premiums. Saying that people can spend their money on condoms or the morning after pill completely defeats the purpose of including it in health coverage in the first place — which goes back to the previous claim that contraception isn’t really healthcare.

… but at the same time, the specific method of birth control matters a great deal

What kind of birth control is important here because it is not all birth control. Only methods that prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. This evidently meets the “least restrictive means” test of strict scrutiny, the most stringent standard of judicial review used by United States courts.

Skipping over the incongruity of claiming that “all birth control is not birth control,” this claim flies in the face of both the legal and medical definitions of pregnancy as well as the medical consensus on how the IUD actually works. Let’s leave specific medical decisions to patients and their doctors, shall we?

Healthcare is a luxury

One Facebook sparring partner referred to including contraception in employer-sponsored health insurance as “companies providing a service to their employees.” Like a shuttle service from the metro to the office.

Anyone with half a brain understands that employer-sponsored health insurance is part of total compensation.

It is currently, yes. I am arguing that it shouldn’t be. It should be a tax-funded public service available to everyone, same as public schools, fire departments, the police, roads… As I noted on Facebook, I grew up in a country where everyone pays for everyone’s healthcare through taxes and government-funded healthcare, with the possibility to supplement that healthcare in the private insurance market if desired and affordable. It would be inconceivable for different people to have different healthcare options based on where they work. France, by the way, is consistently ranked among the top national healthcare systems by the World Health Organization.

Suppose a business owner decides to have a company cafeteria and provide “free” lunch to her employees. Obviously the meals provided are part of the total compensation package for those employees. But suppose the business owner is Muslim and decides that the cafeteria will only provide halal meals. Now what? I say there’s no problem. Anyone care to disagree? Is the business owner interfering with her employees right to choose their own lunches, and imposing her own religious belief on how she spends “their” money?

While intended as an analogy to the post-Hobby Lobby situation, this scenario actually supports making available products and services that all potential beneficiaries may not need or want. If an employer decides to include birth control in its employee health coverage, there is no requirement for a a given employee to use it. However, not including it deprives the employee of a healthcare option.

People have full agency over their economic lives

You’re free to work wherever you want in this country – people leave jobs for better benefit packages all the time…the government has no business dictating to a privately held company that they must do something that offends their beliefs. People can work somewhere else if they don’t like it.

This person is evidently not aware of the unemployment crisis in this country.

Yeah, but nobody said contraception had to be part of that…and it’s not like that’s not available elsewhere if people want it. @nathalie? So that people aren’t free to choose their healthcare provider either? Personally, I believe that people are smart enough to make their own decisions and should be free to do so. Btw, there’s no unemployment crisis in Texas, the economy’s booming, people should move where the jobs are…I did.

The ACA very clearly includes contraception coverage as part of preventive care. Most Americans only have their employer-sponsored plan (or their spouse’s, if they are married to someone who also has employer-sponsored coverage) as realistic options. Promoting relocation to Texas as a solution to the unemployment crisis is both naive and glib, and the Lone Star State is far from being a reproductive health wonderland.

National healthcare systems are a slippery slope to China-style population control

I don’t support things like “population control”, but you do realize that all of the nationalized healthcare systems do studies on this? They have to, because no matter how “ugly” it is as a thought, you have to look at all ways to solve certain situations. We have a major health issue in the (primarily) lower economic brackets in the USA. No one argues this, and contraception is touted as a solution to this. But people have done studies taking that even further…which is a bit scary to me lol.

Population control refers to coercive state policies (like China’s one-child policy). This is different from birth control or family planning, which refers to women and couples making decisions for themselves.

This person didn’t provide any evidence for his claim, so I’m skeptical that this is factual. I’m also not sure what problem affecting low-income Americans is solved by contraception, other than teen and other unwanted pregnancy — which can ONLY be prevented by contraception. Regardless, the fact that someone, somewhere conducted a study that may have been used to support morally dubious policies has no bearing on whether contraception is an essential part of preventive care for women.

The moral good of the market trumps human consequences

Healthcare is an important product. Americans deserve a free market.

Unlike the legions of Ayn Rand devotees out there, I believe that human consequences are more important than the religion of the free market. And further, I believe that the human rights of human beings are vastly more important than the free market rights of businesses.

Can a Problem be its Own Solution? Privacy, Technology and the Limits of Civic Hacking

In October 2013, I participated in a hackathon sponsored by the Annenberg Innovation Lab(AIL) on the theme of privacy. Having spent most of my career on the edges of the tech/geek scene, I was excited to get my hands dirty and perhaps finally learn how to code something more complicated than the text on a website. Unfortunately, the hackathon was scheduled for the same weekend as USC parents’ weekend, and attendance was sparse. While the three of us who showed up were guaranteed to “win,” it also meant that three strangers from very different personal and academic backgrounds would have to quickly come up with a technological solution to a privacy-related problem. The first step was to identify and agree on a problem to solve.

The Problem
As anyone with a pulse (and an Internet connection) will have noticed, online privacy is a very hot topic these days. Between Snowden’s revelations about the NSA’s electronic surveillance programsTarget’s data security breach affecting millions of customers’ credit card information, and heartbreaking accounts of cyber-stalking and cyber-bullying driving teens to suicide, the public has every reason to be wary of the dark forces lurking behind that glowing screen, and “online privacy” has become the cri de guerre for civil libertarians, consumer watchdogs and concerned parents from sea to shining sea. The term “online privacy” itself is a bit of a misnomer. Privacy can’t be segmented into online or offline any more than dating or shopping can. Rather, privacy is newly vulnerable to threats coming from the Internet. As my teammates and I quickly realized, these threats (both real and perceived) are far from applying uniformly to everyone who goes online, a reality that the dominant discourse often ignores in favor of one-size-fits all advice like “change your passwords frequently,” “don’t open unsolicited attachments,” and “don’t do your online banking on an unsecured public WiFi connection.” All good advice, to be sure – but far from addressing the range of perceived threats to privacy that the Internet poses for individuals. I’ve alluded to three broad categories of online threats to privacy: surveillance (in the etymological sense, “being watched from above”), economic theft (ranging from the theft of a single credit card number to the usurpation of an entire identity), and context collapse (the increasing difficulty of keeping our multiple social selves separate when social networking sites relentlessly drive us toward convergence). I felt strongly that the surveillance problem was not one that could (or even should) be tackled technologically. The theft problem had already been tackled technologically, mostly successfully, and what progress could be made at the margins was beyond the technical chops of our merry little band of would-be hackers. This left the third problem: context collapse. Specifically, how can users make the most of the Web (including social networking sites and their increasingly confusing privacy settings) to meet professional and personal needs while safeguarding their privacy from online threats?

The Solution
Solving the problem of the optimal web presence would require two prior diagnoses: the user’s current, actual web presence and optimal web presence – what the user would implement if only s/he knew how. Once we knew where a user was and where s/he wanted to go, I reasoned, it would be pretty easy to give them a prescription for getting from A to B. Out of this disease/treatment model came the product’s name: the Privacy Doctor.

ImageThe project mock-up that came out of the hackathon envisioned a Buzzfeed Quiz-type inventory of social media habits, perceived threats to privacy, and desired uses and gratifications of an online presence. In addition to helping people solve a real problem, the Privacy Doctor would also educate users about how the Internet works (both technically and socially) and empower them to make decisions that best suited their needs and tolerance for risk. I felt very strongly that the Privacy Doctor should not collect any information that wasn’t strictly needed to perform the diagnosis or generate a prescription, and that what information we did collect should not be retained, much less monetized. I was, of course, thinking like a social scientist well-versed in the ethics of academic survey research: only ask for information that you really need, and prioritize your subjects’ privacy above all other considerations. I quickly discovered, though, that the tech start-up culture (epicenter: Silicon Valley) has its own guiding principles: being cool and making money. These are not things that I have ever been particularly good at, much to my chagrin.

There are two main ways to make money from a web start-up: either sell a service from the beginning (UberLyftAirBnB), or hope to be acquired by an established player for an extravagant sum of money (WhatsAppInstagram). The tech behemoths (GoogleFacebook) make their money from selling information about their users to marketers – you and I aren’t the customers, we’re the product. I didn’t want to charge money for what I considered a public service, and the idea of selling user data to marketers made my hair stand on its ends, so I convinced my partners that we could eventually “sell” the Privacy Doctor to an established organization dedicated to online privacy.

I had dispatched the profit motive monster fairly easily, but avoiding the pressure to be “cool” proved just as hard as it was in high school. Suggestions included wearable tech, a Google Glass tie-in, and – most worryingly – automating as much of the process as possible. “No one is going to take the time to manually answer questions about their online presence – why can’t that be automated?,” the argument went. My gut told me that asking users to allow the Privacy Doctor to login to their online accounts (Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the like) defeated the purpose of a media literacy project, but I was willing to go along with it – as long as users still had the option of manually completing a questionnaire. I ran into the same argument with respect to the “prescription.” “You’re making it too hard for people – if they wanted to manually change their own Facebook privacy settings they would have done so on their own. People want technology to make their lives easier, not give them more work to do! Since people will have already given the Privacy Doctor permission to log in to their accounts for the diagnosis, there’s no reason it can’t also change their privacy settings for them if they want it to.”

If they want it to.

No one in their right mind would want such a thing, I thought. But that was also the reaction to any number of technologically-fueled social changes that we now take for granted, from personal lifestyle blogs that more closely resemble the journals and diaries of yore, to the practice of “checking in” to a location via Facebook or Foursquare, then broadcasting your whereabouts to a group of “friends,” who may or may not care where you are and whom you may or may not want to run into “accidentally on purpose.” Maybe my critics were right, and there was in fact demand for the service that I had just derided as creepy and evil. Maybe I just didn’t get it. After all, I hear that in Silicon Valley a 29-year-old like myself is bordering on the ancient and out-of-touch. But my gut kept telling me that asking people to give up their online passwords was no way to “fix” online privacy. If I wasn’t going to win a normative argument about what technology should or shouldn’t do, I’d move the argument to the empirical battlefield and do some market research.

What The Data Told Me
From Friday, February 14th to Monday, February 24th, 2014 I collected 103 responses to a 10-item survey administered through Survey Monkey. I used a convenience sample obtained through emailing the graduate student distribution list, posting on Facebook, and posting on Reddit. Additionally, several respondents elected to share the survey link on their own Facebook feeds or to e-mail it to their contacts. The survey instrument is online athttps://www.surveymonkey.com/s/C2MBKQR. It included questions about demographics (age, gender, education), technology use (level of tech savvy, social media use), and online threats to privacy, whether real or perceived. My real interest, however, was in the last question: Would you be interested in using a service that logs into your social media accounts for you in order to assess your privacy settings and change them for you so that they meet your needs better?Snip20140422_2

The data was unambiguous: the Privacy Doctor was a bad idea. The answers to the final open-ended question drove the point home. The quotes below are representative of the responses I received:

  • “Creating such an app would be such a PERFECT way to get access to massive amounts of private data that it would have to be handled very carefully. It would have to be open source and run entirely on the users own machine, not one scrap of code running remotely or communicating with your server. If someone uses your app, the VERY FIRST thing you should do is inform them that they are gullible and do not have the capacity to make reasonable judgments about what is safe or not online then advise them to get rid of their Internet-connected devices entirely.”
  • “I feel that a service that ‘logs into’ your social media is dangerous, even if it is made by a reputable company.”

Armed with data – the social scientist’s weapon of choice – all I had left to do was to break the news to my teammates and my mentors. The Privacy Doctor was Dead On Arrival.