Gossip, the Perverter

Over the years I’ve read this 20 or 30 times while preparing classes. Its truth and prescience hits me afresh each time.

Gossip is no longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious, but has become a trade, which is pursued with industry as well as effrontery. To satisfy a prurient taste the details of sexual relations are spread broadcast in the columns of the daily papers. To occupy the indolent, column upon column is filled with idle gossip, which can only be procured by intrusion upon the domestic circle . . . In this, as in other branches of commerce, the supply creates the demand. Each crop of unseemly gossip, thus harvested, becomes the seed of more, and, in direct proportion to its circulation, results in the lowering of social standards and of morality. Even gossip apparently harmless, when widely and persistently circulated, is potent for evil. It both belittles and perverts. It belittles by inverting the relative importance of things, thus dwarfing the thoughts and aspirations of a people. When personal gossip attains the dignity of print, and crowds the space available for matters of real interest to the community, what wonder that the ignorant and thoughtless mistake its relative importance. Easy of comprehension, appealing to that weak side of human nature which is never wholly cast down by the misfortunes and frailties of our neighbors, no one can be surprised that it usurps the place of interest in brains capable of other things.  Samuel D. Warren and Louis Brandeis, The Right to Privacy, 4 Harvard Law Review (1890)

Prescient, because it Warren and Brandeis wrote it in 1890. True, because ever time I see the gossip rags in the supermarket checkout line, ever time I spot a picture of Kim Kardashian, I feel brain cells wither.

Note to Self: Never Tweet “That Dress Makes You Look Fat”

As my Internet law students know from my recent classroom rambles lately I am focused–it sounds much better than obsessed–with exploring and defining the complex relationship between privacy, social media, and electronic data tracking. The issues are not new to me but something has ratcheted up my appetite for privacy stories, like this from the NYTimes about tensions that arise when one partner in a couple objects to the other partner’s public disclosures.

[S]ome spouses have started insisting that their partners ask for approval before posting comments and photographs that include them. Couples also are talking through rules as early as the first date (a kind of social media prenup) about what is O.K. to share.

“Talking through rules as early as the first date?” Do couples handle these conversations face to face or via text? I’m just wondering.

Public Like Me*

If you wonder what it is like to be a Foursquaring, data-tracked, social-media denizen then read Living in Public: What Happens When You Throw Privacy Out the Window on Lifehacker. The author, who normally does not expose herself to location tracking, online data collection, and personalized ads, abandoned her clickstream reserve for a few weeks to experience life with a constant trail of digital breadcrumbs. She reports it had some positive aspects but not enough to convert her. (Thanks, E.C.)

*Few of my readers will conjure up the association this subject line intends. Click here if you want to get the joke.

If You Post It, They Will Come

This Forbes article’s title sums up its content: What Employers Are Thinking When They Look at Your Facebook Page. It includes a score sheet of “Five Big Qualities” used to rank college students based on information revealed on Facebook. (I hope whoever named it Five Big Qualities does not plan a marketing career): Extroversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Neurotocism, Openness to Experience. I’m most interested in the view of privacy expressed in a quotation from someone who opposes using Facebook in this way: “In my opinion you have no more business examining my Facebook entries than you would crashing a private cocktail party.” If a simple search allows me to read your Facebook entries then an apter analogy is  ” . . . than you would watching a cocktail party held outside in Central Park in the middle of the afternoon.” People can wring their hands over the appropriateness of winnowing candidates through social media postings, but if it can be found by a simple search, it will be used.

Revisionist History

Attention all GMailers, GCalenderers, Google+ers, and other Google users: Google’s new privacy policy goes into effect March 1, a/k/a tomorrow. As TechNewsDaily puts it, “all the data Google automatically gathers about you, such as the sites you visit, will be dumped into one virtual bucket with your name on it. While you can’t opt out of the new approach without abandoning Google sites, you can erase your browsing history.” Erasing your browsing history is easy; the linked article explains the steps. I just erased mine, after first checking out the oldest saved information–from 2005. Seven years of searches almost every day, stored under my profile in chronological order. I can’t think of one good reason not to erase it. You have just a few more hours to do so.

Dharun Ravi Trial

The prosecution is in the midst of presenting its case in Dharun Ravi’s trial for invasion of privacy of his Rutgers University roommate Tyler Clementi. Clementi committed suicide shortly after discovering that Ravi spied on him during a sexual encounter. Some observers see Ravi’s trial as critical to defining legal consequences for cyberbullying. Ravi is not facing criminal charges connected to Clementi’s death, but his suicide hangs over these proceedings as the tragic unintended consequence of Ravi’s spying. The video coverage of the trial is sad, a sobering demonstration of immature callousness and its consequences.

Tyler Clementi

The New Yorker’s February 6 edition has a long story about the Fall 2010 suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi that dispels some of the misconceptions that sprouted in its wake. The trial of Clementi’s roommate  Dharun Ravi began last week and is expected to last about a month. Ravi is charged with 15 counts including invasion of privacy, hindering prosecution, and bias intimidation, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years. Ravi rejected a plea offer that would have imposed a maximum sentence of five years. My conclusion is that Ravi is an insensitive young man who did inexcusable, casually cruel things, but whose attitudes and actions still place him within the fat part of the bell curve  for 16-22 year old boys and men. It is also difficult to explain Clementi’s suicide in light of his behavior and demeanor in the days following the events and hours before he leaped from the George Washington Bridge. After reading the article I know more and understand less about whole story.

iPhone Tracking

Pursuing iPhone Thief, Officer Knew Right Buttons to Push is a cute little tale of a thief’s comeuppance and a perfect microcosm of the tradeoffs between security and privacy. The article relates how a New York City cop used the Find My iPhone app to locate and recover a stolen iPhone (and arrest the thief) in less than 30 minutes. The app is free to download and install and simple to use: enter the Apple ID and Apple Store password of the target phone in the app’s search screen, select Go, and the phone’s location pops up on Google Maps. You can track the phone as its location changes, lock it, and play a submarine-sonar beeping sound or send and display a message on it. All that’s required is that the target phone be signed into and have Track My Phone enabled on Apple’s iCloud.

And that’s where one trades privacy for security. Once activated anyone who knows the owner’s Apple ID and password can track the phone’s location. My wife left the house early this morning to play tennis. After reading the article I checked her location–indeed she was at the tennis facility. (Current iPhone technology does not allow me to verify that she was indeed “playing tennis” there.)

Comforting, or creepy?

Supreme Court Rules GPS Tracking Requires Warrant

The U.S. Supreme Court just announced its decision in U.S. v. Jones, ruling unanimously that the government must obtain a warrant before affixing a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s vehicle. While all the justices agreed that the Fourth Amendment required police to obtain a warrant they did not agree on the rationale.  Five joined Justice Scalia’s majority opinion that the Fourth Amendment applied to private property such as a vehicle.  Four agreed with Justice Alito that this warrantless search violated the defendant’s reasonable expectation of privacy. According to the article just posted by The Wall Street Journal

Justice Alito warned that a property-based approach was too narrow to guard against the proliferating threats to personal privacy modern technology posed. Justice Scalia stressed, however, that the majority wasn’t repudiating the broader test articulated in 1967, but rather that it was unnecessary to reach it because installation of the tracker was sufficient by itself to trigger the Fourth Amendment.

I Like My Vanilla Plain

I did a double-take when I saw the picture on a card from the IAPP–International Association of Privacy Professionals. For a reality check on my reaction I handed a card to a student and asked if she noticed anything. She looked at it for three seconds and said “you mean anything other than the lack of diversity?”

IAPP=International Association of Pale People?