The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

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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 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 In short, was terrible. In, 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, 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.

Social Media as a Brand

“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 networked publics, many participants embrace a widespread public-by-default, private-through-effort mentality.” (Danah Boyd 62) It’s Complicated

The statement “public-by-default” resonates with me because as a teenager growing up in this time of social media and digital expansion, I know that everything that I post online is available to whoever wants to access it. Meaning that if I post something on Instagram or Twitter, I know the posts are going to be available to whoever clicks on my account either on purpose or by mistake. This knowledge makes me add another layer of thought to my posts because I have to anticipate about how people may interpret this information in a variety of ways but I don’t know if other teenagers take posting as serious as I do. I see social media as a way to brand myself and publish the parts of my life I think are important or cool, but I don’t see social media as a place to vent feelings, post private information, or controversial topics because as I said, that information is available to whoever wants it and the people who interpret it negatively will be quick to judge you as a person. If I’m posting something private online, I’m doing it through either Snapchat or in direct message with someone I trust. I feel like trust and privacy go hand in hand when it comes to the internet. When it comes to sharing sensitive information with people online or with people in general, the most secure way to do it is with people you trust. Using technology, it’s easy to hide behind a screen and screenshot or capture what’s being shared while remaining anonymous. While in an actual conversation about something private, it’s a little bit more difficult to share secrets and spread rumors without having an idea of where it all stemmed from.

Surveillance and Freedom of Speech: Should the U.S succumb to an 1984 type of Society?

Put simply, surveillance is a systematic way of searching for a flaw in a pool of data and when a camera is pointed at somebody, they knowingly change the ways that they act and even think while they are being watched. The idea that you are being watched is suggestive that you are already guilty of something; if you were left alone in a room with a chair, table, and a mirror on the wall, you would become suspicious that your actions within the room are being watched and will be under scrutiny. Surveillance actually creates a great deal of paranoia and this has many deep implications.

Since we are granting the government a “wide latitude of surveillance” we can give them the power to access our social media. This especially will impact activist groups that heavily rely on the power of mass communication that social media platforms have. If the government had a greater capacity to monitor what activist groups plan or say, wouldn’t the groups begin to feel pressure from the presence of an authority figure watching over them and suppress some of their own communication. Surveillance now becomes an issue of free speech rather than a tool to help us improve our own society. If every embodiment of a thought such as a text, tweet, email or status update is looked upon by an institution that installs fear in us at time, isn’t our free speech inhibited?

A good comparison to make in this situation is the Chinese Social credit system. It is first important to note that the Chinese government has different expectations then the United States government, their tradition is more focused on promoting good social behavior. However, we should believe that if a similar system for monitoring the public is used, the government will have its own agenda as well. We cannot ensure that politics will eventually play a role in how we are being watched. How will surveillance affect conversations of complicated topics such as gun control or planned parenthood? Our country has people with opinions across a wide spectrum of values, surveillance would aid in suppressing people with specific views and bring social reform to a halt. With a “wide latitude of surveillance”, this reality isn’t very distant, and once we allow the government anymore access to our information, we will never be able to undo that large digital leap of faith.

Social Media provides more gaps between parents and teens

“Social media has introduced a new dimension to the well-worn fights over private space and personal expression.”

Have you ever hide part of your school life as secrets from your parents through social media? Shared with your friends that you played a trick with your teacher in high school but hide it from your parents? Well, after the birth of social media, teens gradually share less with their parents. Even stay at home, we would not talk about our real life with our parents but chat with our friends through the Internet.

This phenomenon is related to the purpose of social media. As it showed up in our lives, social media become a perfect tool to improve the relationship between friends. People can not only chat in real life face to face but also chat online at any point. Meanwhile, social media also aggravate the tense relationship between parents and teens. Before the era of social media, parents worry about what teens had done outside and tried to talk with them when they back home. Teens enjoyed their time outside and had to face their parents’ question and chatter. However, through the social media, teens could bring their social life and resistance to parents back home. They could lock themselves in their bedrooms and still chat or post with their phones and laptops. It’s much harder for parents to try to learn about their children’s social lives.

Definitely, teens are happy with this change. They have more rooms and freedom now. They could hide their secrets from their parents by simply finishing a privacy setting. At the same time, the gaps between teens and parents become larger and larger. Parents could no longer know what teens want to hide and start to worry more. With almost a blank impression about what their children have posted on Facebook or Instagram, as well as what their children have said to their friends, parents will imagine possible bad manners that kids may be accustomed to. Those imaginations then become new gaps that teens won’t talk to their parents about but parents keeping worrying.


Communicating in Plain Sight

One passage from It’s Complicated by danah boyd that caught my attention was, “Many teens are happy to publicly perform their social dramas for their classmates and acquaintances, provided that only those in the know will actually understand what’s really going on and those who shouldn’t be involved are socially isolated from knowing what’s unfolding. These teens know that adults might be present, but they also feel that, if asked, they could create a convincing alternate interpretation of what was being discussed.”

This passage illustrates the concept of social steganography, a strategy that teens often use to privately communicate.  What I find interesting is that I have always been aware of the existence of this technique, even used it myself, but I had never realized that it was a form of steganography.  Now, it seems quite obvious.  When someone posts an “inside joke” or uses vague or special language that means something to a particular group but appears meaningless to everyone else, they are basically hiding a message in plain sight.  Anyone with access to their online profile could see what they are putting out there, but only a specific target audience would understand what they are really communicating.  Clearly, steganography has a much larger presence in everyday life than I previously thought.

As boyd explains, many adults often criticize teens for posting information publicly while also caring so much about their privacy.  They see these things as acting against each other, but what they don’t realize is that teens are very careful in deciding what they expose to the public.  By using strategies such as social steganography, it is possible to have an easily accessible online presence while simultaneously maintaining control over who you share sensitive information with.

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