Archive for the 'privacy' Category

The Social Threshold

Wednesday, January 26th, 2011

Society is constantly negotiating the boundaries between the public and the private. Surveillance, comments made in private but at work and exposing private lives in the papers are just some of the areas under permanent discussion. Back in days-of-yore the threshold between the public and the private was commonly the door-step. We talk of ‘Crossing the threshold’ as in stepping in from the public space of the street to the privacy of a dwelling. All cultures have always had back channels which circumnavigate the formality of this type of threshold, of being ushered into the front parlour, but it generally used to be possible to assess the level of privacy of a given situation by the walls it was taking place within and who was in the room.

Front Door

Social Threshold (some rights reserved:

The integration of technology into society and the new forms of interpersonal connections it can facilitate erodes the ‘who is in the room?’ or ‘what room am I in?’ systems of assessing privacy. This stretches from snail-mail all the way through to security cameras. We can easily be caught out by technology which makes socially demarked spaces leaky. For example:

  • Discovering the mobile phone in your bag has dialled someone and left a 5 minute voice message of the private conversation you were having with a colleague.
  • Realising that the baby monitor has projected the lullaby you were singing to your child into the living room and probably the living rooms of a number of neighbours who also have young children.
  • Finding out after the fact that the conference session in which you made an offhand comment at about your institution was being live streamed onto the web.
  • Stumbling across tagged photos of you at a party posted in Facebook by others.

These are examples of where the public/private character of a physical space is disrupted by technology. When the primary ‘space’ is online the situation becomes more complex. Here are a few examples from my own experience:

  • Discovering that my ‘Can someone please make it lunchtime?’ tagged tweet in a small parallel conference session was being projected in a Twtterfall on a huge screen behind an eminent panel in the main hall.
  • Being told in an online meeting room that all private text chat messages were visible to moderators, after having made slightly disparaging remarks about the session in ‘private’ to a colleague.
  • Essentially being told-off on the phone by my very Scottish mother for using the American spelling of ‘whiskey’ in a tweet about 30 minutes after I posted it.

In all these cases assumed levels of privacy had to be reassessed in an uncomfortable moment of disjuncture. My imagined social map of the spaces had to be quickly redrawn as the original boundaries were shown to be permeable.

Researchers investigating Massively Multiplayer Online games or Virtual Worlds understand this type of disjuncture which in these cases is forgrounded by the presence of an avatar. The potential embodiment of the individual’s identity and form within the virtual space highlights the fact that he or she is existing simultaneously across two worlds. It’s the shifting nature of the extent to which the individual is in the physical or the virtual world which can cause suspicion and unease to the uninitiated. The boundary between the online and offline worlds has been described as a ‘semi-permeable membrane’ with influences passing in both directions.

I suggest that these membranes or social thresholds not only exist between online and offline spaces, but also between online platforms and constantly need to be redrawn as we attempt to map our own sense of the public and the private. In my case I was technically aware that my tweets were open to Google but it was only at the point at which I discovered my mother Googled for them that the threshold shifted. A wall had been knocked down in my public/private landscape.

My ‘Digital Visitors and Digital Residents’ continuum focuses on the importance of the social perceptions and motivations of individuals as they approach the web. A shift from Visitor to Resident activity involves crossing a social threshold. The position and width of the threshold along the Visitors and Residents continuum will be different for each individual, dependant on their perception of when a platform or online activity becomes social or public (with a small or large P). This is the point at which a platform changes from being a ‘tool’ to a ‘space’ in the mind of the individual, when the mode of engagement takes on a social edge. Google Docs is a good example; for me it is simply a word-processing tool until I notice that others are editing, at which point the public/private boundaries shift slightly and the tool has became a social space; it has moved one step closer to being public. My behaviour changes as I begin to cross the social threshold.

Google Docs

Word processing becomes social

Social media platforms, with their inherent hyper-connectivity require the user to hold highly complex multi-dimensional maps of them as social spaces, with many thresholds of differing permeability. It’s a long way from closing-the-front-door type methods of creating privacy boundaries. Some people are very skilled at managing the ‘edges’ of these social maps and manage their digital identities with great skill and to great effect. The rest of us have come to expect occasional moments of disjuncture.

I would argue that our notions of the public and the private don’t yet account for the width of these social thresholds or for the speed at which they can shift. We constantly negotiate the boundaries between the public and the private but we have an expectation that these boundaries, while moving, will remain sharp. The web and especially social media platforms defocus our understanding of these boundaries. Our ability to map and remap our relationship with these social thresholds is a key form of digital literacy, and possibly a new life-skill (if I can call it that).

What intrigues me is the possibility that those growing-up with these technologies may have a different perception of what privacy means and different approaches to managing their social landscapes. We now generally agree that the Digital Native does not exist as defined by age, but other generational nuances may exist, not in access and skill but in terms of managing and accepting shifting social thresholds.

Not ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

As part of the JISC funded Isthmus project we have been taking a close look not at whattechnologies our students use but at how our they use them. We found that our students could not be usefully categorised as Digital Natives or Digital Immigrants. I.e. This distinction does not help guide the implementation of technologies it simply provides the excuse that “some people ‘just don’t get it’ which is why your new approach has failed so badly…”

Anyway, our students appropriation of online services did not seem to follow a simple pattern based on skill level. It seemed to depend on if they saw the web as a ‘place to live’ or as a collection of useful tools. This underlying motivation led us to outline two main categories of distance learning student.

The ‘Resident’

The resident is an individual who lives a percentage of their life online. The web supports the projection of their identity and facilitates relationships. These are people who have an persona online which they regularly maintain. This persona is normally primarily in a social networking sites but it is also likely to be in evidence in blogs or comments, via image sharing services etc  The Resident will of course interact with all the practical services such as banking, information retrieval and shopping etc but they will also use the web to socialise and to express themselves. They are likely to see the web as a worthwhile place to put forward an opinion. They often use the web in all aspects of the of their lives; professionally, for study and for recreation. In fact the resident considers that a certain portion of their social life is lived out online. The web has become a crucial aspect of how they present themselves and how they remain part of networks of friends or colleagues.

The ‘Visitor’

The Visitor is an individual who uses the web as a tool in an organised manner whenever the need arises. They may book a holiday or research a specific subject. They may choose to use a voice chat tool if they have friends or family abroad. Often the Visitor puts aside a specific time to go online rather than sitting down at a screen to maintain their presence at any point during the day. They always have an appropriate and focused need to use the web but don’t ‘reside’ there. They are sceptical of services that offer them the ability to put their identity online as don’t feel the need to express themselves by participating in online culture in the same manner as a Resident.

In effect the Resident has a presence online which they are constantly developing while the Visitor logs on, performs a specific task and then logs off.

This is of course not a polar distinction. There is a spectrum of which the Resident and the Visitor represent two extremes (Watch this space for a couple of possible sub-categories). It is a useful distinction because it is not based on gender or age. While our data would indicate that the portion of the population over 55 is predominantly made up of Visitors there are examples of Residents in this section of the demographic. Similarly it is the case that not everyone younger than 25 is a Resident.

It is not always easy to spot who is in each category as the level of sophistication with which a Visitor might use any single service might well be greater than that of a Resident. Again, this is not a skill based distinction. In fact I know of at least one ed-tech researcher who considers himself to be a Visitor out of choice.

The Resident is likely to have arranged some sort of system to manage the relationship between services and the flow of information through their browser but this does not mean that they will be any more effective at researching a specific topic than a Visitor. This is why data from a survey that simply asks what online services a group of students use is next to useless.

This Visitor, Resident distinction is useful when considering which technologies to provide for online learners. For example if your learners are mainly Visitors they are unlikely to take advantage of any feed based system for aggregated information you may put in place. They are also unlikely to blog or comment as part of a course. The Resident will expect to have the opportunity to offer opinions on topics and to socialise around a programme of study. In fact they are likely to find ways of doing this even if they are not ‘officially’ provided. We offered membership of a facebook group to our students as they left their online courses. The majority signed-up without question as they wanted to stay in touch with fellow students and continue discussions. The remainder saw the group as pointless and a possible invasion of privacy. Both sides of this argument are correct… It’s a question of approach and motivation, hence Visitors and Residents.

Some of you might also be interested in our paper on Visitors and Residents:

Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement
by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 – 5 September 2011

U.S. to hunt terrorists in WoW (maybe)

Thursday, March 13th, 2008

Via Schneier: The terrorism-obsessed U.S. is running project Reynarda study of massive multiplayer online games looking for “baseline normative behaviors” with the intent to “determine the feasibility of automatically detecting suspicious behavior and actions in the virtual world”.

Terrorism aside, the research is unclassified – so it might be possible to see their results eventually.

Lying and telling tales

Wednesday, March 5th, 2008

“Kids lie early, often, and for all sorts of reasons—to avoid punishment, to bond with friends, to gain a sense of control. But now there’s a singular theory for one way this habit develops: They are just copying their parents.”

Really interesting article in the New York magazine: Learning to Lie.

We know where you live.

Tuesday, February 12th, 2008

The New York Times has an article about the difficulties of leaving Facebook – or rather, ensuring that all your personal information is cleared off when you leave.

Briefly, to erase your presence there as much as possible, you should:

  1. Delete everything from your profile (Personal details, pictures, messages, wall posts, groups applications, etc.)
  2. Contact Facebook and request permanent account deletion.
  3. You should get a deletion confirmation – try logging in. If it asks if you want to reactivate your account, it hasn’t been deleted – bug Facebook.

More detail in the Facebook group How to permanently delete your facebook account (oh, the irony).

According to the Facebook terms and conditions, deleting all your uploads expires the license you give which allows Facebook to use them for whatever they want. However, they may still have copies on their servers. How much of your personal data is preserved when you delete it isn’t clear, and I wonder how that figures with the UK Data Protection Act.

Point, Click … Eavesdrop

Monday, September 10th, 2007

Important information for privacy advocates and paranoiacs alike in an article over on Wired (based on the EFF‘s freedom of information requests), about the FBI’s Digital Collection System Network:

“the surveillance systems let FBI agents play back recordings even as they are being captured (like TiVo), create master wiretap files, send digital recordings to translators, track the rough location of targets in real time using cell-tower information, and even stream intercepts outward to mobile surveillance vans.”

If we can assume that the system is secure and the authorisation process (via the courts) is reliable, it looks like a really impressive law enforcement tool. However, software is usually buggy – so open to attack, and the courts don’t seem to matter – so the US government can spy on anyone they like.

Between this, free speech zones, detention without charge, and extraordinary rendition, it makes me worry about the state of the US (and the UK’s involvement). It even makes me nervous about the holiday in the New York I have booked.