The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: boyd

What Privacy Means for the Modern World

Public discourse around privacy often centers on hiding or opting
out of public environments, whereas scholars and engineers often
focus more on controlling the flow of information. These can both be
helpful ways of thinking about privacy, but as philosopher Helen Nissenbaum astutely notes, privacy is always rooted in context  (Boyd 60).

In this quote from It’s Complicated, Danah Boyd points out an import disconnect in the definitions of privacy: that of the public layman and that of the scholars and engineers tasked with determining the minutiae of the definition itself. Identifying this disconnect is critical in the discussion of privacy as it precludes meaningful discourse on how to implement privacy measures that satisfy all involved parties. While a more philosophical view is presented by the philosopher Helen Nissenbaum, the triviality of the statement, once again, fails to advance any kind of useful discourse on what privacy truly is; saying “privacy is always rooted in context” is a general statement that does nothing to establish a set of axioms from which we derive a general sense of what privacy is.

So then, what is privacy? Or rather, what are some common features of this ethereal concept we refer to as “privacy”? For this, we can return to Boyd’s distinction between two different views: that of the public and that of scholars and engineers. For the public, privacy is the ability to hide certain personal details from the public eye or scrutiny. Sounds simple enough, but this definition falls apart with regards to private third parties. Suppose, for example, that a teenager doesn’t want their parents to snoop about their private social media feeds, accounts that are understood to be privately available to a select group of people chosen by the teen themselves. Parents, in this situation, act as a private third party and, under the aforementioned definition of privacy, should be allowed to have access to these accounts. However, ask any teen whether or not they would grant access to their social media to their parents and you’ll be met with a zealous “No”.

So then, if this definition fails to address certain, we must turn to the scholarly definition, the one wherein the actor has control over the flow of their personal information. This definition, however, also has its faults, faults which have grown more apparent with the advancement of the digital age. We’ll examine these faults in the context of a teen’s media feed once more. Consider then, the case where a teen posts information to a select number of carefully curated followers: close friends and acquaintances, among others. Following, suppose one of those friends wishes to share the post with their friends, and so on and so forth. Here, we see that the scholarly definition of privacy fall apart at the outset, as as soon as the teen posts the information, they relinquished all control over the flow of that information.

As such, we see that both definitions of privacy fail in an increasingly connected world, but they do provide us with a general sense of what privacy means in practicality: privacy can be loosely defined the ultimate freedom to choose who exactly can view one’s personal details. While such perfect privacy may never be achievable, defining privacy as such can ultimately lead to constructive discourse on how to approach such an ideal, despite the increasingly abundant pitfalls created by a digitizing world.

Having Something to Hide in the Social Media Age

“she has started creating a ‘light version’ of her life that she’ll regularly share on Facebook just so that her friends don’t pester her about what’s actually happening. Much to her frustration, she finds that sharing at least a little bit affords her more privacy than sharing nothing at all.” (Boyd 74).

In this social-media fueled age, it seems that the typical “cynic[al]” doctrine of privacy—”that only people who have something to hide need [it]” still rings true to a certain extent. I find that it is often the norm for people of my generation, which is relatively more internet conscious and well-lectured on the dangers of social media than our early 2000s counterparts, to practice certain measures of privacy from outsiders—like keeping Instagram or Facebook pages on the “private” setting so that only those who you allow can see your posts. However, I also find that it is often privacy from those we know in real life that is much harder to obtain in our online personas. In this quote a teenage girl finds that she must somewhat regularly post on Facebook to keep her friends from pestering her about why she isn’t updating people on her life online. This story is not an outlier, and it would definitely be a true statement that the norm is regular social media use, and not the other way around. If someone goes from posting regularly on any of their social media sites, to silence, it would definitely raise alarm from those in their online following and lead to invasive questioning in real life.

Therefore, these days, the idea that wanting privacy is indictive of  having something to hide, may have given way to the idea that choosing not to share (and share frequently) online is indicative of having something to hide.

Social Media Is Basically Spy Training

“Rather than finding privacy by controlling access to content, many teens are instead controlling access to meaning.” (Boyd, 76)

Discussing this quote leads to some of the key differences between cryptography and steganography. While teens are openly publishing messages, only those with the requisite information and context required to decipher what the messages are saying will be able to take any meaning from them. It’s as if they’re sending encrypted messages where the encryption method is not based on mathematics or systematic rearrangement and swapping of letters, but is instead based on context and inside jokes. It’s like a “social cipher” with the key being a history of social interactions with the sender, rather than some series of letters or numbers.

Thinking about cryptic social media posts this way can lead to another thought about the difference between cryptography and steganography. In steganography, it is not the contents of a message that is being hidden, but the existence of the message itself. Cryptography, conversely, makes the message unintelligible to a receiver, unless that receiver has the key to decrypt the message, but the message itself is never hidden. In this way, posting something cryptic on social media can actually have characteristics of both. If a teen posts the lyrics to a song, the casual observer would just think that the teen likes that song, but that song may have some special meaning to someone else who takes away a completely different message. The message being delivered here was in plain view and was only correctly interpreted by its intended recipient, which is a characteristic of cryptography. However, the fact that there even was a message other than “I like this song” was unknown to everyone except its recipient, which is a characteristic of steganography.

The Ethics of Invading Privacy

“For example, even when two people happen to be sitting across from each other on the subway, social norms dictate that they should not stare at each other or insert themselves into the other’s conversations. Of course, people still do these things, but they also feel a social responsibility to avert their eyes and pretend that they cannot hear the conversation taking place. What’s at stake is not whether someone can listen in but whether one should”


I found this quote interesting because it was reminiscent of the discussion we had in class of using locks as a social cue for security. In danah boyd’s book It’s Complicated, she tries to highlight the distinction between the ability to violate privacy and consciously doing so. Given the degree of entanglement of our social lives and the internet, violating privacy is extremely easy. While taking steps to strengthen your privacy can be helpful, it is often futile either because it is difficult to implement effectively or because someone actively seeking to override your privacy could probably succeed by putting in enough effort. In such cases, it is better to define what is right or wrong and not keep much faith in the efficacy of privacy.

In her book, boyd gives the example of Christopher, a fifteen year old teenager who gave his social media passwords to his parents, trusting them not to violate his privacy. I feel this is somewhat the middle ground which finds a balance between what adults want and what teenagers desire. If we ignore intensive parenting for the moment, parents want their children to be safe and not be doing anything wrong, and teenagers want to be able to regulate which part of their lives their parents should see. By trusting them their your password,  teenagers can inspire confidence in their parents that they are not doing something unlawful while parents can feel like they have the means to protect their child. Additionally, giving access to parents breaks the false notion they hold that privacy is associated with wrongdoing.

In Public but Unpublic

In It’s Complicated, boyd wrote: “there’s  a big difference between being in public and being public… mere participation in social media can blur these two dynamics.”

I especially like the author’s analogy between a subway conversation and a social media post online. While both contents are in public, neither is being public. A subway conversation, while audible to those around, is meant to be private. Likewise, while a social media post is visible to all, it’s meant to be private as well, or at least exclusively shared between only a few. While teenagers seem to understand and practice the concept almost unintentionally, adults struggle to grasp the ideology behind their actions.

Once social media emerged, it has become unstoppable. Teenagers, a generation facing the rise of such communication, face particular challenges in terms of personal privacy and social interactions. Humans share the need to be in public, be a part of a social group or a community. It’s hard to maintain offline when interactions are occurring online. And the mere concept of social media – the ideology of a more open and interactive space – is blurring the line between what’s accessible and what’s private.

In traditional senses, inaccessibility equals privacy. If a diary is locked, parents would know its content is intended to be kept private. However, the same kind of physical lock has disappeared in the age of social media. Teenagers are relying on social conventions to lock their online presence, while parents are failing to follow such invisible rules.

The public-by-default mindset of social media makes it harder for teenagers to navigate their privacy. Because the social environment is so different online, it’s easy to think that it has completely different rules when it comes to maintaining privacy. For instance, while almost no one would choose to broadcast a conversation in public, many would post such conversations online. Personally, I believe it might be due in part to the illusion-like nature of social media. While we know the content we post online are visible to virtually everyone, it doesn’t feel like we have a full house of audience. The concept of everyone is different in social media from its traditional meaning.

The expression of privacy has changed; yet its core meaning and challenges haven’t changed.

Why Are Adults so Bad at Social Media?

“Controlling a social situation in an effort to achieve privacy is neither easy nor obvious. Doing so requires power, knowledge, and skills… Second, people must have a reasonable understanding of the social situation and context in which they are operating.”

In this part of the chapter, boyd discusses how privacy can be achieved by taking control of a situation. She says that the three things that are needed are power, knowledge, and skills, and then she describes how teens aren’t great at this because it isn’t easy. Even though her reasoning makes sense, I still think that saying teens “struggle with this” is incorrect. Not only that, but I also think this applies not only to privacy, but social media usage in general. The specific part of this that caught my attention was that she said that people need an understanding of the social situation and context. If anything, I”m pretty sure that teens are extremely knowledgable when it comes to the context of social media. Teens are usually the first people to try all the new types of social media, so they are usually the ones who set up the context. And this makes sense; since we have grown up in a technological society, we are the best audience for all this new stuff. Social media is literally made for teens, so we are generally good at navigating through all the intricacies, including achieving privacy. I think it’s hard to completely agree with boyd on a lot of things that she says, because she is still one of the adults. She’s trying to see privacy from the point of view of a teen, but just the fact that the has to do research and conduct interviews shows the disconnect. I understand that she was doing it for the book, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of the things the teens talked about were unfamiliar to her, but common knowledge for the average social media usage. I think this is why adults are so bad at using social media, and why parents are always invading privacy. They don’t understand normal social media cues, similar to regular social cues like boyd described (not staring, not eavesdropping). Honestly, I don’t think this will change anytime soon either, because teens are just so much different than adults. The best that can happen is for adults to just try and learn how to be normal.

The Debate of Privacy Among Different Generations

“Teens will regularly share things widely on Facebook simply because they see no reason to make the effort to make those pieces of content private” (Boyd 62).

In Chapter 2 in Boyd’s novel, I find this quote to be very relatable. While I do not consider myself an active poster on Facebook, this applies to other social media apps such as Instagram and Snapchat. When attempting to explain the concept of these new apps to my mother, who is technologically challenged, she often rebuttals with Boyd’s common perspective of parents viewing these posts as irrelevant and even sometimes as a violation of my privacy. While I am not doing anything wrong, it is just the competition of mindsets of different generations. For example, when considering to post a happy birthday post on Facebook or tagging my friends in memes, I could send it by text or I could even copy the link of the meme and send it through more private means. However, it just does not seem necessary to go through the extra steps when it does not matter whether others will see this post. Just because I don’t find this particularly necessary to send privately, does not mean I do not care about my privacy rights. In this regard, matters I truly want to keep private I ensure are not posted on any social media. On another note, Boyd references a student that erases her daily usage on Facebook to prevent people from using her previous comments against her later on. I disagree with this because I think while comments can be trivial, one should always consider the implications of their posts and, therefore, if they do not want to accept the consequences for their possible posts, they should not be using social media.

Worry is a misuse of your imagination

“Teens often grow frustrated with adult assumptions that suggest that they are part of a generation that has eschewed privacy in order to participate in social media.”

I would agree that there definitely is a social pressure to “post nice pictures” on Instagram or Facebook or VSCO because there’s a recurring saying among users that if you didn’t take a picture and post it on Instagram, then were you really there?

But also I agree that the generation of parents fret too much over us being peer pressured into doing something that we don’t want to. That just isn’t always the case, because it’s up to that teenager to decide whether other people will dictate her feelings and the social pressure she puts on herself or just completely disregard the impact of social media and be carefree of it. People nowadays have more respect for exactly that—not caring how many “likes” a picture gets, but posting a picture plainly for the memory or to share what’s going on in their life. Sure, the pressure of being validated by the amount of likes you get will always be present because validation of existence and purpose I would argue is one of the basic needs of human life in the 21st century, but I think we can all agree that we can control ourselves mentally to not let that define our existence. If not, then that says a lot about how easily people can be manipulated today.

I think the reality is that teenagers are briefed so many times on the whole “keep your private information PRIVATE and everything posted online will stay there forever” shebang that there’s already a common sentiment that teenagers actually do want privacy. The stories about teenagers posting an indecent post that received much disdain and dislike that resulted in her/him being socially shunned that people are scared into are probably exaggerated and skewed to sound like it’s worse than it actually is. I’m sure that we’ve all posted something (not even risqué) that we look back on two years later and go “yikes.” But the whole mental game plays with your mind to make it seem like that post attracted a lot more negative attention towards your social standing than it actually did. And that’s the trap of social media and why parents have such a misunderstanding of how teenagers really understand use and sharing of private information on social media.

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