When The Glass Breaks (v2)

by James Graham and Anne Bernays

(Note: Anne thinks this is far from publish-ready, but I’m shipping now; we can iterate later. All errors are mine.)

Although the word “privacy” is nowhere to be found in the U.S. constitution, the Bill of Rights proposed by James Madison included the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment declares the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.”

Until recently, we assumed that most things remained private in media and personal lives. The personal communication media of Madison’s day, letters, were written on paper– a medium that requires breaking into a home, searching, and seizing. Only with the advent of digital communications — where no search or seizure is required in order to eavesdrop — has the independent notion of privacy become especially relevant.

Over the past fifty years, the Internet has reached nearly everyone in the developed world — moving from the academic to all kinds of communications, but at a price. As consumers, we interact with the Internet as we do gorillas in a zoo: feeling safe, since we’re behind glass. The Internet is an entertaining creature at a distance, but has the power to kill your privacy. Hoping to provide a more immersive experience, the keepers of our zoos are beginning to remove that glass.

Zoogoers who know how to tame gorillas will survive the experience, while those who do not may have their last. For example, Michael Hayden, a former director of the NSA, famously asserted that “We kill people based on Metadata.” Metadata is like a table of contents in a book: a brief description of what the book contains. Given the scope of the Internet, and how thick our personal books of data have become, everyone should learn how to be their own zookeeper.

Autoadjusting thermostats, wristbands that track heart rate, and refrigerators that monitor the freshness of stored food are a few examples of the Internet’s new physical presence. The technology community calls this the Internet of Things: devices that “hook into” The Internet with the potential to collect even more data about people and from even more locations. The Amazon Echo is a new “Internet of Things” device that sits in your house and continually listens to every sound made inside the room. This device is used by average citizens to set timers, check the weather, play the music or radio, or order food.

The Internet is cause for serious privacy concerns. Federally sponsored dragnet data collection on all American citizens, exposed by Edward Snowden, is one example. The more we learn, the more we worry. More than ever it is time to declare war on our collective ignorance. We can’t wait for, or depend upon whistleblowers.

The more data Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other digital services collect, the more money they make. Facebook’s “emotional contagion” campaign in 2014 exposed the fact that Facebook was able to use our data to manipulate its users into an emotionally vulnerable state. Advertisers are Facebook’s customers, and our data is Facebook’s product. Our data is interpreted as advertising targets; things such as age, gender, income, location, where we’ve vacationed, if we commute to work, if we own a timeshare, or hundreds of other options.

If any of us has ever been tagged in a photo on Facebook, DeepFace, Facebook’s AI, recognizes us in new photos. Imagine that someone takes a photo of a crowded space and uploads it to Facebook: DeepFace looks at all the faces in the photo and if any of those faces have a Facebook account, DeepFace knows who they are, where they are at the time the photo was captured, and all about their personal lives.

We must get better at identifying what and how our privacy is being violated in order to prevent it. The best solution for all of us is to stop using Facebook.

If we must continue to use Facebook, never use the smartphone application. The smartphone application tracks your location and eavesdrops on other web services you might use. Instead, use Facebook in your smartphone’s web browser and enable an ad-blocker to stymie tracking.

Press “Deny” when smartphone apps ask to use our data. When using apps for the first time, often you will be asked to give them permission to use your location or view your entire contact list. Instead of mindlessly hitting “Allow”, deny them access.

Leave smartphones at home more often. Retailers are beginning to take advantage of our smartphones’ MAC Address, a unique identifier broadcasted via WiFi, in order to learn about our shopping patterns in their store so they can sell more to us online.

Scariest yet, our applications can access our smartphone’s gyroscope and accelerometer, the mechanisms that allow for applications to respond to shaking or games to react to tilting the device, without asking us for permission. With off-the-shelf data analysis algorithms, applications can “learn” your heartbeat through these inputs as well. Your phone can eavesdrop on your most intimate signals. Leave the thing at home.

We have to come to terms with the idea that zoos, offering a closer and better interaction with their animals, are thinning their protective glass to do so. We must know how to survive in a digital world. When the glass breaks, and the physical separation between animal and visitor vanishes, we will wish we had spent time learning how to tame the beast of the jungle. We must learn how to use technology lest it continue to threaten and abuse us. James Madison would certainly agree.