March 17, 2018

A Decade in the Panopticon | Peer to Peer Review

Barbara FisterFacebook just turned ten years old. A lot has changed in that decade.

We’ve grown accustomed to sharing details of our lives through a single platform that tracks our likes, dislikes, friendships, and interests and follows us when we leave the site to browse the web. We’ve gotten used to using our Facebook login to sign up for other services. We’ve grown resigned (to the point of indifference) to the panopticon that corporations like Facebook have created by using our activity on the Internet as our window on the world and their big-data window into ours.

Apparently Facebook celebrated by making videos of its members via photos and comments they’d posted. I don’t know what these videos look like because I uprooted myself a few years ago. I got a lot out of Facebook when I belonged. I could see what family members were up to. I got to know more about what faculty at my institution were doing and thinking and what they cared about. I got links to articles that were terrifically interesting; Facebook became a news source and a discovery tool. In fact, the company is building on that function by launching Paper, a customizable app that will aggregate the most-liked stories on Facebook, edited by human curators and free of distractions. Who needs newspapers when we have Facebook? Oh, wait—Facebook does, or where will it get all that high-quality linked content?

When I left Facebook, a Byzantine process of self-exile full of intentional friction, I missed those daily connections and felt left out. But I had been troubled from the start about the way the site seemed designed to make all of us marketers of our own identities, accumulating friends and likes as the metrics of validation. It was like being in middle school again, only with data constantly informing us of our status. I was even more troubled by the voracious way the company soaked up personal information as a business model, as so many tech companies do. What we think of as “free” is, in reality, paid for in constant micropayments of personal data.

What strikes me as an indication of how fundamentally our attitudes have been shaped by this “free,” personalized connectivity is the difference in public responses to the news that the government is doing what Facebook, Google,  faceless giant data brokers, and many other corporations do: storing unimaginable amounts of data that could be used to create detailed profiles of us and our associations. When the government first announced in 2002 that it planned to do massive data mining on U.S. citizens to anticipate and prevent terrorist attacks, there was so much push-back (even with 9/11 fresh in our memory) that Congress defunded the eerily named Total Information Awareness project. It didn’t go away, though; it just went into hiding. When we learned in 2005 that the National Security Agency (NSA) was engaging in large-scale domestic warrantless wiretapping, we were troubled, but the Bush administration adamantly defended its legality and Congress shrugged. Portions of the PATRIOT Act due to sunset have been reauthorized twice since then with remarkably little debate.

What changed? Our sense of agency. Our sense that what we think about public policy matters. Facebook and similar digital playgrounds made us think that privacy was over, an archaic notion, an out-of-fashion luxury good we could no longer afford if we want to be part of the 21st century.

Edward Snowden’s leaks have revealed the sweeping scope of the NSA’s use of data and finally prompted some discussion of whether this giant surveillance state apparatus is warranted. Like many librarians, I believe this is an unconstitutional, antidemocratic practice that should be opposed strongly. I was glad to see Dorothea Salo write here in Peer to Peer Review about how library organizations could join forces with other advocates to speak up for privacy. I also think we should seriously consider, as librarians, what we think about the intrusive data-gathering that has become a ubiquitous business model for tech giants and other enterprises.

Every spring, I’ve talked with students in a course I teach about these issues. They are unhappy about the way their data is used to shape their search results, and they are creeped out by the ways that businesses use aggregated data to reach into their lives. They think it’s wrong, but they also don’t remember a time when privacy was an option. They feel a sense of powerlessness. It’s the way of the world. What can you do?

I want to reassure them that it hasn’t always been this way, and it doesn’t have to be. Whether or not I trust the current president, it’s dangerous to allow the state to build an apparatus that could become an effective tool for totalitarianism. Likewise, if I willingly give my personal information to corporations in exchange for a “free” service or a bit of convenience, I can’t expect intelligence agencies to keep their hands off it. The erosion of our sense of privacy as a right and our justified concern about surveillance, corporate and state, is a serious problem.

It’s not enough to reassure our patrons that their circulation records are confidential. Information literacy should include discussions about how modern tech empires are built out of our personal information. It’s time to declare ourselves as librarian, as citizens, no longer helpless and indifferent to mass surveillance by the state and by corporations.

Can we librarians show some leadership, here? Or do we think it’s too late?

Or do we simply no longer care?

Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller

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