Tagged: privacy

Sometimes It Crystallises Out: 7 case studies in digital ethics

Other lists could be made – of Wikileaks and Anonymous, of Napster, Mega Upload, the first Facebook facial recognition arrest and the Twitter joke trial. Digital ethics – privacy, ownership, transparency and surveillance – are thorny political topics.

But tonight I want to take another tack, to share with you seven smaller, more personal stories. Seven turning points, seven issues and events from a long span of internet cultural history which brought sharply into focus certain aspects of life, as a human being, on the internet and immersed in social networks. Some moments prescient, or where something started; others where something long-gestated finally came into public view.

I want to frame them as case studies in ethics because they bring into focus questions of how we should behave in these new spaces, these new communities and publics – they are dilemmas about the moral course of action. They bring into focus questions of meaning, and values – and an awareness of how technology changes our capacities, and how it can leave what we had thought of as norms in new and uncomfortable flux.

Perhaps this is also a media archaeology,  in its interest in moments where the mainstream discourse around online cultures changed. New York Times longform articles still seem to hold a disproportionate sway. But enough verbiage: now, the list:

1. A Rape In Cyberspace
by Julian Dibbell
Village Voice, 23 Dec 1993

“I am requesting that Mr. Bungle be toaded for raping Starsinger and I. I have never done this before, and have thought about it for days. He hurt us both.”

Back in the days before the World Wide Web – back in the days before social media, even before webpages – there were always already virtual realities. They were called MUDs: Multi User Dungeons. Users dialled in over the phone network to a purely text-based landscape. Text-based exploration of a virtual space, text-based storytelling – and the text-based development of a virtual community. One of these was  called LambdaMOO.

One day, one of its denizens typed some text on to a screen, and set into motion a chain of events that made it clear: there was no digital dualism. The virtual was socially real.

On this list because: this was the start of cyber ethics

The Bungle Affair raises questions that—here on the brink of a future in which human life may find itself as tightly enveloped in digital environments as it is today in the architectural kind—demand a clear-eyed, sober, and unmystified consideration. It asks us to shut our ears momentarily to the techno-utopian ecstasies of West Coast cyberhippies and look without illusion upon the present possibilities for building, in the on-line spaces of this world, societies more decent and free than those mapped onto dirt and concrete and capital. It asks us to behold the new bodies awaiting us in virtual space undazzled by their phantom powers, and to get to the crucial work of sorting out the socially meaningful differences between those bodies and our physical ones. And most forthrightly it asks us to wrap our late-modern ontologies, epistemologies, sexual ethics, and common sense around the curious notion of rape by voodoo doll—and to try not to warp them beyond recognition in the process.

2. The Cybergypsies
a novel by Indra Sinha

An autobiographical novel about the early, early days online. Before I was there – 1984, before I was born. I frame it in that way because this book is intensely personal to me – in some ways there’s not much more I can say about it than that. It’s one of half a dozen things that mean I am here, now, doing this.

The book’s about a lot of things – MUDs, MOOs, sex, Bhopal – and addiction. Sinha believes he spent about £50,000 on phone calls into these virtual worlds – avoiding his life, his job, his marriage. He wasn’t the worst hit.

On this list because: Sinha showed us the future of digitally conditioned,  dopamine-chasing response:

“Jarly can’t afford food but one of the first things he did after he moved in was to have a telephone line installed. Not a telephone, just the line. (‘Don’t need a phone. Don’t want buggers ringing me. All my mates are on-line. Just need a gateway to the net.’) On the tobacco-smogged wall, amid splots of insect gore and smeared crescents of some rich, dark stuff which surely can’t – or can it? – be shit, the socket gleams incongruously white. To most people it is something they unthinkingly plug a phone into – but to Jarly it is a gateway to heaven and to hell. Into it vanishes every penny that he can earn, borrow or claim in social security benefits. From it comes pleasure, knowledge, pain. It is a plastic vulva awaiting his modem jack, a hollow vein awaiting a needle, a synapse whose long copper nerve receives and transmits signals that connect Jarly’s brain to a vast and chaotic world of the imagination. Jarly’s real life is not ‘real’ but the life which is lived in the worlds to which this tiny hole in the wall leads.

[…] He has tried many times to stop, to break his modem habit. He’s tried everything he can think of but, lying on his narrow bed, he knows that sooner or later he will succumb to the whispering of the little mouth in the wall. He describes to me the self-hatred and sweetness of the inevitable moment of surrender, of giving in, letting go, of busy fingers conjuring a fix, the buzz of the modem coming to life, the whistle of connection sliding like a needle into his brain, and the rush of relief as he floats into the game.”

[Quote via a 1999 interview with Sinha on the WELL, another seminal BBS]

A jump forward in time:

3. The Trolls Among Us
by Mattathias Schwartz
New York Times, 3 Aug 2008

The New York Times meets Jason Fortuny of 4Chan.

Something about ]the suicide of] Mitchell Henderson struck the denizens of /b/ as funny. They were especially amused by a reference on his MySpace page to a lost iPod. Mitchell Henderson, /b/ decided, had killed himself over a lost iPod. The “an hero” meme was born. Within hours, the anonymous multitudes were wrapping the tragedy of Mitchell’s death in absurdity.

Someone hacked Henderson’s MySpace page and gave him the face of a zombie. Someone placed an iPod on Henderson’s grave, took a picture and posted it to /b/. Henderson’s face was appended to dancing iPods, spinning iPods, hardcore porn scenes. A dramatic re-enactment of Henderson’s demise appeared on YouTube, complete with shattered iPod. The phone began ringing at Mitchell’s parents’ home.

On this list because: bullying, and trolling, and internet suicide. The depths of digital cruelty gained mainstream recognition around this point (2006-08), Megan Meier being another example.

But the bullying itself is not the turning point – just an old behaviour adopting new media. What was more interesting was the attention given to 4Chan, and /b/, and just how weird people could get when able to access communities of the like-minded. Around this time Anonymous were also coming into public consciousness, with Project Chanology against the Scientologists beginning January 2008.

The ethic of the lulz started to gain the oxygen of publicity – and we asked, was free speech really supposed to be used for this?

4.  The nym wars: how many identities is enough?

There’s not a story here, so much as a handful of events, and key articles.

In January 2011, Facebook deleted the account of Chinese dissident journalist Michael Asti, because “that wasn’t his real name”. In March, quoth Zuckerberg, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” And in July, Google Plus launched with a controversial “real names only” policy – and the storm broke.

Thus the “nym wars”, where  tech old-handers (and women) passionately defended the virtues of anonymity against the big tech companies who smelt a profit in identity services and targeted advertising. But more than that, it’s a turning point because at this point the general media and public had become comfortable enough with online space to accept it as “real” and part of daily life – and as such be quite amenable to Facebook/Google’s arguments that online behavioural norms should include connections to one’s offline and legal identity. In this way, there was definitely an aspect of the nymwars that was old internet vs. new.

So even without a defining personal case study, it’s an important topic to keep on this list. To quote a 1995 US Supreme Court ruling (McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission). “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority”

As subsequent case studies indicate, it may not have long to last.

5. How Companies Learn Your Secrets
or, as Forbes retitled it, How Target Figured Out A Teen Girl Was Pregnant Before Her Father Did
by Charles Duhigg
New York Times, 16 Feb 2012

On this list because: the moment where we realised just how up-close and personal Big Data was going to get – or rather, had already gotten.

6. The Web 2.0 Suicide Machine
by Walter Langelaar of moddr_ media lab, Rotterdam
introduced 9 March 2012

On this list because: it marks a growing public understanding that ‘social’ was starting to get too much. Too many frenemies, personal brands and social obligations. Too much sharing – too much noise. Too little control of our own data.

7. First Attack on A Cyborg
by Amara D. Angelica
KurzweilAI.net, 17 July 2012


Augmented reality pioneer Steve Mann visited a Parisian McDonald’s with his family in July 2012. Mann has a system called the EyeTap physically installed in his skull that records photos and video, and can display augmented reality data directly in his line of sight. Upon ordering a Chicken Ranch Wrap, the McDonald’s employees accosted Mann and tried to tear the glasses out of his head.

On this list with reference to Mark Hurst’s article today, The Google Glass feature no one is talking about (28 Feb). That is, a Glass prison of total peer surveillance, upload to the Google cloud, and facial recognition and tagging.

It is of course a fallacy to think we’ll be able to resist this brave new world simply through individual actions of evasion and opposition to people wearing Google Goggles – it’s far more systemic a problem than that. Nonetheless, without wanting to excuse the violence against Mann – this attack insists on standing for far more than its own specificity.


As do all these seven stories. There are more, I’m sure, which haven’t risen to mind this evening. Your suggestions and additions are welcome.

Your mobile phone leaks

Published in design/architecture magazine ICON, issue 106 on mobile phones:

This year the number of mobile phones will exceed the 7 billion humans on the planet. For this issue we asked novelists, academics, experts and designers to reflect on this communication revolution, in a 22-page special on how cell phones have changed the ways we behave, connect to and navigate the world. And to make their own predictions about how mobile phone technology will look in the future …


Your mobile phone leaks. Behind the user interface, out of immediate view, it’s sharing a lot more data than many people realise.

Take location. In exchange for offering Google Maps as a free service, Google extracts the price of knowing where your phone is at all times, even when the app isn’t running. Your home and work addresses are easy to identify (your habitual locations at 3am and 10am respectively). These can be cross-referenced against MOSAIC (market research company Experian’s consumer classification) or Zoopla house price records to transform location into income and demographic data, allowing users to be sold as micro-targeted ‘market segments’ of high value to advertisers.

Mobile web surfing habits provide another stream of data. Mobile operators use deep packet inspection and redirect mobile web traffic through their own servers to manage network performance, but this also allows them to monitor the websites people visit. Private internet use through VPNs may also be constrained, allowing fewer channels for private browsing – and child protection agreements mean that everyone not verifying their identity as over-18 will be blocked from much of the web. Legally operators must enforce blocks on a small blacklist of domains (e.g. child pornography), but monitoring web history is also data that is highly commercially exploitable.

Information storage is increasingly cheap and data protection laws some distance behind the technology, meaning that companies are building the biggest possible datasets now to hedge against future restrictions.

Less legitimately, mobile phones can also easily be compromised by malware and spyware. Apps may ask for greater rights than they strictly need, allowing remote access to the phone’s microphone and camera, and sharing text entered (e.g. emails, passwords) and location data. Occupy London protestors have been known to remove batteries and keep mobiles in a separate room while meeting to plan future actions. This may seem paranoid, but the Mark Kennedy case has shown police infiltration of ‘domestic extremist’ groups to be commonplace.

Does mobile data sharing matter? Some would argue no: users are knowingly exchanging their data for free access to entertaining and useful services. But the impact of such bargains goes beyond the individual. Companies such as insurers and financial lenders are keen to use whatever data they can to minimise risk. This may mean denying insurance or a mortgage on factors outside the applicant’s control – simply the likelihood that “people like you” (by location, or web use) are more likely to default on payments.

The customised advertising enabled by mobile data also have their costs. By being delivered on the basis of aggregated and probabilistic data, the recommendations made are normative. Does the working class teenager see ads for jobs in McDonalds rather than university degrees? Is pregnancy advice limited by religious affiliation? Personalised services offer convenience at the price of potentially constraining our possibilities for action.

Behind the commercial value of mobile data is network analysis: modelling our social relationships (call histories, social media friends) as the nodes and links of a graph, and analysing patterns and clusters. This has substantial predictive capacities: where one user is unknown to a mobile operator (or to Facebook), many personal details can be inferred from their patterns of interaction with known entities. An individual does not have to be directly known to be present in the network through their relationships with others.

Social media analysts do not only focus on the ‘social graph’ of relationships between people – they analyse ‘interest graphs’ (relationships between profile interests or topics of discussion, e.g. music or technology) in exactly the same way. To what extent does “the individual” remain the primary unit within these assemblages of behavioural data, social, material and semiotic relationships?

Notes on the end of privacy

1. Companies are mining the social web to build dossiers on you. Anything you post to blogs, Facebook, Twitter or other websites will be stored in a cross-referenced database of your online activities, to be sold to marketers – and, frankly, whoever the hell wants it, for whatever the hell purpose – to track you down as an individual.

Jules Polonetsky, director and co-chair of the Future of Privacy Forum, said online users have no clue that a comment they made on a blog is being added to a database for some unknown use.

“I don’t think users expect that,” he said, and if consumers think idle chatter and casual conversation can be used against them by institutions, it’s almost certain to create a backlash, according to Polonetsky. He said the Federal Trade Commission is right now re-examining the current privacy structure in the U.S.

But at the same time, he said consumers are always very comfortable with Amazon using data to recommend books they might like. “When users are in control of it, it’s a win-win — if they feel empowered.”

Do marketers realise that what they’re doing is sinister? The article linked above (on Mashable) discusses how credit card companies are looking at people’s social connections to sell them new products. So-so. But what about a US health insurer using this information to deny coverage to people who they can classify as ‘high risk’ because they live in areas or communities with poor health? Or anti-abortion terrorists using this information to harass women who’ve been asking questions about abortion? “I know who you are and I know where you live” – the dark side of personalisation is a flat-out threat.

What marketers behind this – e.g. Rapleaf.com with some 389 million people tracked – don’t want to acknowledge is consent. I’ve given Amazon lots of information about the books I’ve bought and the books I like, so not only have I opted into its recommendations process but it’s also quite transparent. The exact algorithm might remain a mystery, but I know the data-points it’s feeding into that sum, and I know what it’s going to try & do with that data, viz, recommend me books in the hope I might buy them.

But no-one’s opted-in to having their online social lives (Twitter, FB, blogs & the rest) mined for information like this. While web users are aware that what they say in these forums is public, I’d argue that we’re used to thinking about a human-scale definition of public which is now dangerously obsolete.

This human-scale public is what we’re used to walking down a city street. Sure, anyone might see us, but there are two crucial points: (i) whoever can see me, I can also see them, and (ii) in a crowd of strangers I am both in public and anonymous. I would argue that this is the kind of “public-ness” people instinctively imagine they have online.

E.g. if I make some comments on a message board of course I know that anyone else on that site (=city street) will be able to read it, but it’s unlikely anyone I know from elsewhere will come wandering by and see what I’ve been up to. Perhaps I’ve posted under a handle or pseudonym, so surely that’s anonymous vis-a-vis my real name. This, I argue, is how most people instinctively think about public comments they make on the internet: an effective anonymity by dint of scale.

But these aggregating and connecting web trackers aren’t human-scale. This is a new techno-scale public in which everything publicly visible will be seen (collected, aggregated, linked) rather than simply can. The balance of possibility has shifted, such that actually the online public isn’t anonymous any more – the internet’s still too big for a human acquaintance to happen across everything you’ve said elsewhere, but it’s easy for a crawler to grab it all.

As mentioned below, you don’t need to leave a comment with your name on it for a website to trace your identity. That question you had about redundancy? Assume your bank can find out. Sexual health? Your health insurer wants to know. This is the surveillance public, the online equivalent of urban CCTV with face recognition and car numberplate tracking. You’re still free to do anything… As long as you’re happy for anyone to know about it.

2. Introducing ubercookies, a technique for websites to uncover the exact identities of visitors by using Flash to probe their browser histories for identifiable patterns. This is made even easier by the social web.

3. What can I find out about you if I know your email address? Answer: a lot, including full name and location allowing for telephone number look-ups.

4. My hacker boyfriend close friend the security researcher recommends Mozilla add-on BetterPrivacy for blocking Flash cookies, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation / Tor add-on HTTPS everywhere which encrypts your communications with major websites.