Speaker warns students of data privacy


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Photo by Ryan Lederer |

Siva Vaidhyanathan, professor and chair of the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia, encourages his

audience to be wary of data surveillance yesterday at Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus.


Most people drive through an E-ZPass lane without a second thought, but they might be paying for this convenience in more than just dollars.

Siva Vaidhyanathan, author of “The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry),” spoke to more than 100 students and faculty yesterday afternoon about data surveillance in everyday life and its implications for consumer privacy.

His presentation, “The Cryptopticon: Knowledge and Dignity in the Era of Big Data,” held in the Alexander Library on the College Avenue campus, focused on how bits of information accumulate into a vast collection that provides companies with valuable consumer data.

“Most of the stuff we do is mundane to us,” said Vaidhyanathan, professor and chair of the Department of Media Studies at the University of Virginia. “When you go through a tollbooth, you don’t think, ‘I am being surveilled.’ But in total, to somebody, [this information] means something.”

Vaidhyanathan, who is also a professor at the University of Virginia School of Law, said the concept of big data is enormous amounts of unstructured data produced by instruments that track and analyze behavior.

Companies seeking to boost their online marketing have a huge stake in big data, Vaidhyanathan said. He cited the way Google fills in possible entries on the search bar once a site user starts typing and Amazon book recommendations as products of data tracking.

He said these kinds of companies gain consumer profiles through browser cookies and computer IP addresses — not just customers’ interaction with the company site.

“They follow you around the Web,” he said.

While many people may notice these targeted recommendations, Vaidhyanathan said not enough of them realize how much they are being watched — evidence of a phenomenon he calls the “Cryptopticon.”

The “Cryptopticon” is rooted in English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s design for a prison called the “Panopticon,” which featured a guard tower lit around the clock, so that inmates would not be able to tell whether they were being watched.

Bentham theorized that prisoners would assume that they were always subject to surveillance and would tailor their behavior accordingly, Vaidhyanathan said.

But as applied to data surveillance, Vaidhyanathan said companies want an authentic picture of a potential customer’s behavior gleaned from their activity on the Web — which would suffer if customers were aware of technology tracking their every online move.

“We are constantly being watched, but we’re not supposed to know it,” Vaidhyanathan said. “The goal of instruments of surveillance ... is to get us to explore our niche affiliations.”

He said companies often refer to their tracking behavior in euphemisms like “enhancing user experience” and “recommending products” to keep customers’ guards down.

But he said online shoppers are hardly the only ones affected. Another institution that citizens should be aware of is the Department of Homeland Security, he said.

Vaidhyanathan said the department keeps “No-Fly” and “Terrorist Watch” lists, both of which contain several hundred thousand names, according to estimates by non-governmental organizations.

A major problem with these lists is that they breed “false positives” — people who are erroneously tagged as dangerous because their name is similar to one on the list, he said.

Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.; former Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.; and Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela have all been stopped by airport security for this reason, Vaidhyanathan said.

Thirty-thousand people have complained that airline software falsely matched their names to the “No-Fly” list as of 2005, according to the Transportation Security Administration, he said.

Vaidhyanathan said the TSA’s goals are important, but he wants to increase accountability. Too often, there is a rush to build technology without considering safeguards, he said.

While information tracking might seem like a new problem — stemming from 21st century technology — Vaidhyanathan said the issues date back to the 1960s, when the expanding credit card business and Social Security needed more efficient ways to collect and organize data.

“Americans became subjects of data, producers of data, leavers of data trails between 1965 and 1975,” he said. “And yet it didn’t feel any different to be an American.”

He said he wants people to feel the difference.

“The key to security is to understand what we as individuals do with our choices … how we express our allegiances to certain products,” Vaidhyanathan said.

There is a widening gap between people who have the resources to modify their digital reputation and those who do not, Vaidhyanathan said. Tech-savvy young people, for example, adjust their Facebook privacy settings much more than older people, he said.

Robert Schomburg, a School of Arts and Sciences junior, said he installed a Firefox plug-in called NoScript that blocks active scripting content that could lead to security exploitations. Because of that, he said he has not experienced much targeted advertising.

“A lot of my Google ads are really offbeat,” he said.

But Vaidhyanathan said people like Schomburg are in the minority.

“It was pretty interesting considering the amount of people who know about it and don’t do anything,” said Ray Zhang, a Rutgers Business School first-year student. “I know I’m one of those people who don’t do anything about it.”

Vaidhyanathan acknowledged that big data has advantages, noting that huge quantities of information can compensate for the occurrence of “garbage” data, which would ordinarily corrupt analysis of a smaller information sample. Still, he takes issue with the methodology.

“I don’t want anyone to boycott Google,” he said, “but I want people to be aware of the costs and benefits.”

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