The Documentalist

Interesting NPR Series: The End of Privacy

Posted in Editorial by Sarah on October 30, 2009

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This week, National Public Radio’s All Things Considered has been airing a series called  “The End of Privacy.” The articles call attention to the fact that social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace),  email and web crawling services (e.g., Gmail/Google or Yahoo!), and even cell phone services harvest, store and act upon a large amount of personal and identifying information gathered from users.    The journalists for these pieces investigate the legal and economic ramifications surrounding the use of personal data in Web applications in general, however, listening to these articles raises important questions for human rights in particular.  Specifically, if activists are going to use these platforms to rapidly distribute materials and mobilize actions, they need to be aware of the fact that they are not necessarily working anonymously, though they may assume that they are.

As reflected in several posts on this blog, the use of social media is changing the face of human rights activism and thus causing NGOs and archivists alike to seek means of capturing and preserving the fleeting, transient, and ephemeral information that flies across the Web at the speed of rapidly typing fingers.  One of the challenges that immediately rises to the surface in this is protecting the privacy and safety of victims, witnesses, and even activists from further injury by oppressive regimes–a problem that becomes further complicated if we recognize that Web applications are capturing detailed personal information that repressive regimes can access and use against the people who post the materials.  Of course, the problem of privacy and safety is not new to human rights–as Valerie Love at the University of Connecticut observes in a recent post to the WITNESS Media Archive:

In recent years, archival institutions and organizations have become increasingly concerned with issues regarding human rights records and archival collections. Questions of access, privacy, politics, trust, and ensuring the safety of those documenting abuses and potentially controversial records all impact archivists working with human rights collections.

This observation applies to the content of documents and how they can impact the individuals represented withint them, but when we extend the situation to the web, these privacy issues become even  more complicated–and not only for the privacy issues related to using the web described above.  As people increasingly use the Web to post video and images of events and abuses they witness, the anonymity of the people captured in those materials is  compromised; unfortunately, well-meaning witnesses  post materials to the web that can help governments identify individuals involved in human rights protests, for example, and repressive regimes take advantage of those images to identify and arrest the represented individuals.  Add to that that the person who posts may not know that they can be tracked through their Web use and we find yet another person potentially at risk.  One thing that NPR’s “The End of Privacy” series makes clear is that users need to be aware that they are increasingly vulnerable to extensive data harvesting–data that can  identify specific users, their preferences and activities, and even their physical location–and take measures to try to protect their anonymity.


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  1. […] The End of Privacy Interesting NPR Series: The End of Privacy « The Documentalist. […]

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