Private Internet and Public Streets

Last week I published a very simplified history of Big Data. In this simplified history, I hoped to trace a genealogy that does away with the myth of data as a neutral field and, instead, present a case for data as the site of dominant political interventions and the basis for our contemporary “racial hierarchies”. As a follow up, I’d like to explore how privacy is currently conceived in relation to both databases and physical spaces. With the advent of technologies such as “body cams” and the built in facial recognition capabilities of these technologies, I am mostly interested in how we conceive of privacy and data protection in virtual and physical spaces.

In October 2012, Adrian Chen published an investigative report that would eventually become iconic: Unmasking Reddit’s Violentacrez, The Biggest Troll on the Web. In his investigation, Chen traced the footprints of a man who had, up to that point, anonymously posted a variety of racist and misogynist material on Reddit forums. Adrian Chen not only found the man behind the pseudonym but also exposed the details of his private life. This action, commonly referred to as “doxxing” (revealing the private details of someone who had been anonymous), triggered a discussion that transcended borders and languages. Dutch, German and French media, among others, reported on this phenomenon.

The peak in search for doxxing on the same week that Adrian Chen published his report

The word “dox” and its permutations reached a new peak in Google searches. Endless think pieces were written about doxxing, both in favor of Adrian Chen’s investigation and against. It was at this point that discussions about anonymity and privacy on the internet took a turn to the right. The undisputed right to anonymously post racist or misogynist content became a favorite white and libertarian leaning workhorse. “Trolling” should have no repercussions in one’s private life and those doing so deserved the right to be protected from exposure. Or so became the most widespread belief. In yet another seemingly contradictory twist of events, many of those associated with what is now known as the alt-right regularly use doxxing as a disciplinary mechanism to silence dissenters, especially targeting women with threats of leaking their personal information such as home or work address paired with warnings of sexual violence.

One of the notable ways in which Violentacrez built his following was thanks to his status as moderator of the Reddit forum known as “Jailbait” where users posted photos of tween and teenage girls lifted from their Facebook accounts. Violentacrez regularly deleted photos of girls that did not appear underage so that the forum would remain “topically relevant”. Paradoxically, the same right to privacy demanded by Violentacrez and his supporters was not even an afterthought when the forum users were lifting underage girls’ photos from their Facebook accounts. Privacy, they insisted, was the realm of the male ogler and not of his victim.

Two years after Adrian Chen’s piece was published, Anthony Cumia, a radio host popular among the kind of young white men that have recently become known as the alt-right, was fired from his job due to a racist and misogynist rant triggered by a situation in which he tried to photograph a Black woman in Times Square. When the woman refused to have her photo taken, Cumia not only shared her image with his followers but went on a tirade that degraded her womanhood, racial heritage and humanity. Thousands of his supporters attacked anyone who defended the woman’s right to privacy and to not be harassed in public spaces. Again, like in the case of Violentacrez, the right of men to photograph and distribute images trumped the right of individuals to privacy. For the photographed woman, the mere act of “existing in public” was enough to be deprived of her right to privacy.

Whereas the unveiling of a known internet troll through the traces of his public posting history was deemed outrageous and off limits by a crowd of mostly white men, a woman did not have the right to refuse being photographed in an equally public but physical space. The internet, generally conceived as “private”, while the street has been constructed as “public”. To add a further layer of complexity to this construction, it’s worth pointing out that there are some stringent laws and regulations regarding photographing of public buildings. In many countries in Europe and in the US, there are explicit restrictions placed on taking photos of buildings that could be targets of terrorist acts or on taking photos of members of security forces (such as police, soldiers, etc). However, the same protections hardly exist to protect civilians from being photographed in public. In the cases where these protections might exist they are rarely enforced with the same emphasis as those aimed to protect potential terrorist targets. In July 2016, a court in Georgia (US) even went as far as ruling that non consensual upskirt photos are legal as long as they are taken in public spaces.

These instances, sometimes in direct contradiction of one another afford us the chance to examine how current discussions of privacy have been hijacked by a certain ideological orientation. This insistence of viewing public internet activities as part of “the private” and, as such, deserving of undisputable privacy, can perhaps be best explained by Jason Patton. In “Protecting privacy in public? Surveillance technologies and the value of public places”, Patton argues that “surveillance functions as a disciplinary technique.[…]. People who are aware of the potential for being monitored self-regulate their behavior, watching themselves as if from the perspective of others. By being observed, people are individuated through this increased self-awareness, leading to a guarded caution in their actions”. What seemed to outrage these men was that they might be exposed and scrutinized in the same way that they had been exposing and scrutinizing their targets. If it was generally accepted that their internet related interactions are part of the public space, they would perhaps be forced to regulate their behavior. It was then that privacy became a proxy for their uncontested right to examine, discuss and objectify without being subjected to a similar degree of scrutiny. It wasn’t explicitly said but it became clear in the ongoing discussions that the white male gaze was deserving of safeguarding under the excuse of protecting privacy whereas the objects of this gaze are hardly ever afforded the same considerations. “Existing both in private and in public” being enough to forfeit one’s right to be protected from their eyes as it was demonstrated in the cases of the photos of young girls lifted from their Facebook accounts (under the pretense that they were made public by the user) and as it was demonstrated in the case of the Black woman who contested the right of a known racist to photograph her in the street.

In the next part of this series, I intend to cover how the lines around private and public are further blurred in data gathering operations, surveys and community census. Stay tuned because Big Data is coming for your demographics to a Municipal register near you!

EDIT: Part three of the series, “Surveys, vigilance and the myth of neutral data” is up!

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