Cryptography

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Controlling our Narratives

This post is in response to Brianna's blog post, "Redefining Privacy."

To start, I find a lot of Brianna's points to be extremely accurate and thoughtful. For example, many teens do use social media to "socialize with friends; to gather information on peers we know little about; to attract potential roommates and significant others." Our purpose for posting online has never been to expose personal details about our lives, and I don't believe our social media use exposes us more than we'd like to be exposed. And this purpose does not undermine a design for privacy - Brianna is right - it is absolutely about control. I, for example, pick and choose exactly what I post online, choosing what I want to let others see. I control the narrative that people can see, through my different social media networks.

However, it's also important to discern between different intents on different social media platforms. For example, Facebook is a platform widely used by adults and people that we may have formal connections with. I see the most filtered posts on Facebook - the average college student may be posting wholesome pictures from their dinner out with friends, or sharing an update on a volunteer org that they joined. The next level down would be Instagram, where we are "followed" by most all of our peers, but also some select adults. These pictures and captions may be less formal: glamor shots, funny photos, aesthetically appealing food pics, etc. And the final level would be snapchat, where teens post "stories" at parties, of their friends doing stupid things, of little life-updates such as "I just got a D on that chem test HAHA" that may be viewed as weird or out-of-place on another social media site.

We choose to control our appearances through different social media sites, attempting to maintain a careful and well thought-out list of who can "friend" us on Facebook, "follow" us on Instagram, or see our "story" on Snapchat. For someone like me, who uses all these platforms, it's easy to slip into the mindset that I've got it all planned out. That I know exactly who can see what. However, this is naive and unrealistic. At some point, we must expect to make a mistake, or unintentionally blur these narratives that we design to be so different. And it's always interesting to see the consequences.

 

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.

Redefining Privacy

With the popularization of social media, the 21st century has redefined the ways that people interact and share with one another. Today’s teenagers are notorious for posting everything online, from embarrassing pictures to political opinions. Parents consistently accuse teens of “oversharing” and often believe they are entitled to monitoring their kid’s online activities. They impose that their children have no regard for privacy because they share every bit of their lives online. Teenagers, however, argue differently. In her book, It’s Complicated, Danah Boyd offers various teenagers perspectives on privacy in a public setting:

 In a mediated world, assumptions and norms about the visibility and spread of expressions must be questioned. Many of the most popular genres of social media are designed to encourage participants to spread information. On a site like Facebook, it is far easier to share with all friends than to manipulate the privacy settings to limit the visibility of a particular piece of content to a narrower audience. As a result, many participants make a different calculation than the one they would make in an unmediated situation. Rather than asking themselves if the information to be shared is significant enough to be broadly publicized, they question whether it is intimate enough to require special protection. In other words, when participating in net- worked publics, many participants embrace a widespread public-by- default, private-through-effort mentality.” (Boyd 62)

Parents mistake posting on social media with a disregard for privacy. Traditionally, the notion of privacy pertains to keeping personal information out of the public eye. As our culture has shifted to interacting on online public domains, however, this conventional understanding is no longer relevant. We [including myself in the teenage population] share things online to socialize with friends; to gather information on peers we know little about; to attract potential roommates and significant others. Interactions that traditionally occurred in person, where there is little chance of documentation, now take place on the internet where they are more accessible for viewing. But simply because the domain of communication has changed does not nullify the desire for privacy. With regards to monitoring the flow of information that people want to be available online, perhaps a better word than “privacy” is “control”. It is not that we don’t want people to know information about us or what is going on in our lives; rather, we want to retain power over our narrative that exists online. Posting content and commenting on what other people share typically creates a link to your personal profile. Every move we make online is a conscious decision. By selectively participating on social media sites, I believe we have control over our digital personalities that are accessible for viewing.

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.

The Unfair Tug of War

Danah Boyd begins Chapter 2 of her book, It's Complicated, by presenting the ongoing war of privacy between parents and teens. More precisely, Boyd makes a bold statement when she says, "Many teens feel as though they’re in a no-win situation when it comes to sharing information online: damned if they publish their personal thoughts to public spaces, and damned if they create private space that parents can’t see." This statement,  and especially the last part, caught my attention because of its relevance to society today and how easily I can relate.

As a teenager, I personally felt like I had to hide a lot of things from my parents. Sometimes, despite living thousands of miles away from them, I still feel this way. So when Boyd describes how so many teens feel like they cannot have a private for themself, it definitely hits home. At the same time, at this point in my life, I can definitely see why this "war" between parent and teen can be put into comparison with the "war" between the government and the people who are so adamant about their own privacy. And the reason why this comparison is so apt is because it draws from the stubbornness of both sides. The ones trying to hide everything they have and know are unbelievably stubborn about it, while the higher powers seem to ignore what they have to say and push forward. It's kind of like a tug of war, and until something happens in society that is significant enough to change people's minds, then I highly doubt that this war of attrition will end anytime soon.

 

Whether we can or we should: an exploration of privacy in the digital age

“What’s at stake is not whether someone can listen in but whether one should.”

This quote from It’s Complicated by Danah Boyd perfectly illustrates the complex role of privacy in an increasingly digital age. As opposed to the past where locked doors and hushed conversations limited parents’ intrusions into their children’s privacy, the rise of public chat rooms, profiles, and pages on social media platforms have allowed increased access to the social media profiles of students. One common argument that parents often make for the stalking of their kids’ social media is the fact that it’s accessible to the public, and therefore they can look at it. But that argument fails to account for whether or not they should look at it. I have the ability to run through commons and make a scene when getting my breakfast; that doesn’t mean I should do it, because doing so causes a public disturbance that violates social etiquette. It’s this sense of social etiquette that drives our sense of morality, and what should prevent parents from excessively looking at their children's' online profiles without cause. This argument should be extended into the information age and evolve into a sort of digital etiquette. Even if online accessibility has increased, boundaries remain very real and should be respected no matter the medium of information exchange. It’s well known that government agencies such as the NSA possess the tools to decipher our encryptions and monitor our messages; but doing so knowingly violates citizens’ rights to privacy without just cause and can turn into a slippery slope where all communication is monitored by an overarching surveillance state. However dystopian that may sounds, its effects are being observed in realtime where increased violation of boundaries often leads to more secrecy and unexpected consequences.

Just because an action can be applied isn’t reason enough for its application. Those who use this justification often have ulterior goals, and it's necessary that parents, authorities, and everyone in between recognize that boundaries exist and respect them. The "can" vs "should" argument will no doubt persist, but I hope this blog post was able to clarify the debate around this topic with respect to privacy. 

The Different Social Medias

In chapter 2 of Its Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens, author Danah Boyd jumps into the role social media plays in the lives of today's youth. Specifically, she analyzes how much youth want to share, and how much they want to keep private. While reading the book book, I found the statement “As discussed in the introduction, technical affordances and design defaults do influence how teens understand and use particular social media, but they don’t dictate practice” particularly interesting. As I look back on my experience as a teen, it is very intriguing to me to think about what social medias were used for what purposes.

For me, instagram was and still is the main social media platform in my life. Instagram was originally structured as a photo sharing app. The main thing you could do was post photos of yourself for the world to see. It was a user to world communication rather than a user to user communication. Since then, instagram has added user to user communication, but because its original purpose was to post pictures of oneself, people’s main use of an instagram account is still to portray themselves to the world. 

Another social media I have used whose structure influenced its usage was ask.fm. In short, ask.fm was terrible. In ask.fm, each user had an account. Onj your account, people can anonymously ask you questions in your inbox. You could then choose to answer those questions, and your answers would appear on your profile. Because of the text-based anonymity, ask.fm became a hub for middle school bullying, There was a high level of privacy, but that only have license for kids to be mean because they knew they wouldn’t get caught. 

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.

Why We (Teens) Post

“Adults complain that teens are wasting their time publicizing trivia, whereas teens feel as though their audience can filter out anything that appears to be irrelevant.” (Boyd, 62).

Yes. Adults are correct. As teens we tend to post things online that others may or may not find enticing. However when we post we hope that our followers will interact favorably towards the content. My friend Gabby and I were actually discussing this earlier this year one late night. The other day, instagram announced that they would soon experiment with taking away the “like” function of their app. Users would still be able to “like” pictures and videos, however only the creator of the content could view the amount of likes the post received. Like Nikki Minaj, I hated this idea. Unfortunately the point of instagram is to gain followers and “likes”, not to actually connect with friends. Deleting this aspect of the app would completely defeat the purpose of posting. Because of this, I can see why parents believe us teens are wasting our time.

However, I also agree with the notion that if people don't actually care about my content they will not waste time viewing it. Although I post pictures partially because I believe my viewers might enjoy it in some capacity, I also do it for myself. Instagram is a great modern-day picture book. It has all of my favorite pictures from the years on one easy page. If someone doesn’t like what I am posting, they simply ignore it. Just like if someone posts a picture that I do not like, I will not “like” it, I’ll just continue scrolling. 

 

If You Discuss Your Business in Public, It's Everyone's Business Now

There was one part that stuck out to me in Chapter Two that I understand, but simultaneously disagree with. The statement is as follows:

The default in most interpersonal conversations, even those that
take place in public settings, is that interactions are private by default,
public through effort. For example, when two people are chatting in
a café, they can assume a certain level of privacy. Parts of the conversation may get recounted later, but unless someone within hearing
range was surreptitiously recording the conversation, the conversation most likely remains somewhat private due to social norms
around politeness and civil inattention.

Now, like I said, I completely understand the viewpoint of this. I am not disagreeing with the fact that people automatically assume that their public conversations are private. You are at a restaurant, at the mall, or in any public space with someone whom you know and you guys are having a conversation, of course you do not expect people to be listening on to what you are saying.

I am disagreeing with the concept that this should be the default assumption. I believe that eavesdropping is wrong, yes, however, if you are talking about a matter that you would rather have be private, it is not appropriate to speak about it in public. If I overhear you talking about something and then decide to post about it, leaving out your name to give you some privacy and but including your gender, race, and maybe a guestimate of your age, I believe you would have no right to be upset at me if you happen to come across said post. I think it is the responsibility of the person/people talking about something to decide, "If someone overhears this, would I care?"

You should not be talking about your affair, or your divorce, or your bad financial situation in public if you are not okay with strangers potentially hearing it and possibly even talking about it. Since every human is not a decent person, you cannot assume that everyone will just ignore your conversations in a public area. Personally, I think it is also kind of selfish to have that mindset. Like, no. If you bold enough to talk about it in public, be bold when you see a post about you go viral on Twitter. Keep the same energy.

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