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Private Eyes, They’re Watching You.

News & Features | October 23, 2011

Last semester, when Tufts junior Ben Weitzman logged onto to Facebook chat to message a friend, he was surprised to see a long-forgotten conversation from the previous school year appear on the screen. “I realized that they were storing every single thing I’ve ever said in chat,” the computer science major said. “This was unnerving to say the least.”

This experience, unnerving though it may be, seems commonplace to many. We have become accustomed to having our every move on the internet stored in some mysterious database that most users know little about. Words you typed haphazardly some years ago now pop up in present conversations as a sobering reminder of who you once were—or how you chose to present yourself on the Internet—no matter how young or unaware or drunk you were at the time.

The new permanency of the typed word is something that our generation,,which has grown up with the Internet, has come to take for granted; or perhaps we have just chosen to bury that uncomfortable reality in the virtual folder of things we’d rather forget. But Weitzman could not brush off what so many have learned to accept, and the jolting experience of realizing his words were being recorded got him thinking about creating a way to stop Facebook from reading his conversations.

He spent the summer of 2011 working at Abine, a company that offers downloadable solutions to web privacy issues. Abine approached Weitzman, a computer science major with “this problem which was that Facebook, which is one of the worst sites for privacy, doesn’t have any web trackers,” he said. “This is because Facebook doesn’t need to have any trackers. They are the tracker.” From there Weitzman created a program that “scrambles,” or encrypts messages sent between users on the chat interface. The messages are thus still stored, but become unreadable to Facebook. This is a small step toward combating unwanted information storage; and companies like Abine are offering browser extensions that block tracking and other services for free.

Facebook is not the only company whose vague privacy policies have created concern among users: Google+ and the new Amazon browser, Silk, are publicly considered major contenders for ‘most mined data.’ In fact, most companies today that use personal information (like email providers and Internet search engines) store at least some of their users’ information. A lot of these internet and data providers explain customer tracking by emphasizing the benefits to the consumer experience. Facebook claims their data collection provides more personalized interaction with both friends and advertisers and Amazon touts much faster web browsing. But many users don’t know what they’re getting themselves into when they half-heartedly click ‘Agree to Terms,’ skipping over pages of dense legalese regarding these sites’ ever-changing privacy policies.

Is it possible that the average user just doesn’t really care? In 2010, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg made the controversial comment that privacy is no longer a “social norm.” The 27-year-old entrepreneur said, “People have really gotten comfortable sharing not only more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people.” In many regards, the veracity of this statement is obvious. Twitter users happily update personally identifiable information in real time with anyone and everyone that chooses to follow them. Tweens and college students share private thoughts about very personal subject matter on Tumblr, which has virtually no privacy settings when it comes to public sharing. Facebook tracks years of friendships, allowing us to indulge in the novelty of social media nostalgia as we watch relationships with old friends and lovers bloom and then fall apart publicly through wall-to-walls and tagged pictures. In the next few months, the Facebook profile will be replaced by “Timeline,” which will chronologically display every bit of information users have chosen to share throughout their time on the site, highlighting posts that received the most activity.

It is difficult to ascertain whether new and readily-available communication technology have spurred people to become less concerned about privacy and more apt to share, or if the desire to display oneself to the world has always been innate and now simply has a platform for delivery. In either case, the one freedom that has always been a top priority in many nations and most obviously in the United States is the one that the digital revolution both provides and eradicates—the freedom of choice.

Internet users do have a say in how much information they choose to share with the public – for instance, by limiting the privacy settings on Facebook photos or deciding not to share one’s exact location on Twitter. But these cumbersome differences in privacy settings often prove too nuanced for many users to navigate; they are often buried in more obscure parts of the site and can be inflexible. Other users simply don’t know that they can manipulate these settings at all. And what no one has any control over at all is in what capacity their information is shared with third parties.

Larger issues arise as things like Cloud software, which enables companies to seamlessly track information about user demographics and activity become commonplace. While most people have begun to accept that things shared publicly online, like Facebook photos and blog posts, are never truly private, what about ‘private’ emails, messages and chat conversations sent only between two or three people? The content of these conversations is increasingly sold to and used by advertisers to target users more specifically and effectively than sweeping internet campaigns. Most users, however, only see the illusion of intimacy when participating in these conversations and have little to no idea that their words are being read and recorded. This user data can also be subpoenaed in court or otherwise requested by the government and is often handed over without question or protest by the company recording the data, choosing to avoid a government warrant. The jury is still out, literally, on where these seemingly private interactions stand in regards to the Fourth Amendment, but currently it would appear that personal exchanges like emails are not as protected from search and seizure as we would like to believe.

Though users technically must agree to terms that state these policies, the wording is often vague and sites know that few users will take the time to actually sift through the pages of reading. It is often not clear what exactly a “third party is,” – it could be an advertising company or an information tracking agencies. Ultimately, lax privacy policies are not going to stop the hundreds of millions people that use these communication tools from doing so. Now a social and business obligation, many people do not feel they have the choice to opt out of social media and email, so they accept the good with the bad and turn a blind eye to what might be the necessary evil of information mining. But as our methods of communication evolve, should our ethics and standards of privacy evolve as well? Should companies be allowed to take advantage of the currently vulnerable state of our most personal information? These are questions that can only be answered with time, but the continuing compliance of all parties involved indicates a trend of the total dissolution of privacy as we know it.

When Ben Weitzman realized that casual conversations with friends were being stored for years on end, he set out to effectively end what he saw as an invasion of his privacy. Most of the millions of users of communication technology do not possess the skill set necessary to stop these breaches the way he did. Aside from downloading browser extensions from companies like Abine, it is up to each individual user to keep a vigilant eye on what they share and to be educated and aware of who can view their information. As companies continue to push the boundaries further, the public will continue to push back in the hopefully never-ending conversation between consumer and company about what our standards of privacy should be.