Digital Distress In An Age With Less Privacy

Digital Distress In An Age With Less Privacy
by imei Hsu, RN, LMHC, Artist

Recently, I took part in a conference in Seattle addressing the topics of privacy, identity, and innovation as it relates to the technology affecting our world through the advances of a digital age. At no other time in history have we been more enpowered by technology in multiple formats and with such mobility. I was stunned and in awe to watch the transit of Venus across the face of the sun on June 5,2012 — all from the convenience of my iPad. Yet partly due to the  speed in which many software applications are delivered, the people in charge of developing and delivering these systems admit that they do not have all the questions answered, nor the legislation in place to protect the best interests of the consumer. While I initially thought I should share a more information-oriented, clinical description of the affect of privacy issues on psychology and psychological services, I kept asking myself, “What is it that people want to know from me about this topic?” The answer: what is it that I think about privacy and how it affects us? What does any of this have to do with psychology or my well-being? The answer: what you don’t know can hurt you. For now, I’m calling this effect Digital Distress.

Here’s a few things you should know from conversations about Privacy.

photo placeholder. Original ink drawing by Imei Hsu.
photo placeholder. Original ink drawing by Imei Hsu.

1. Consumers are concerned about privacy. It’s not that we know nothing about what it means to have our contact information or images of ourselves violated or exploited. It’s that in general, many of us do not know enough about how to protect ourselves — that is, we are not readily and clearly educated about how to keep our personal data under our control. Terms of Use Agreements (TOUA’s) are often written in legal language that is difficult to interpret, we are subscribed into programs we didn’t select, and many of us do not know how to launch “do not track” programs on our most frequently used Internet browsers.

From the conference, here’s the video from the consumer panel I took part of in pii2012 this past May. Larry Magid, CBS journalist, is the moderator.

2. Privacy Needs A Clear Definition
First of all, not everyone agrees on what content of our experience online is private and what is public and open for use by the applications used. What we do appear to agree upon, whether your are a consumer, developer, programmer, or legislator, is that privacy means control. If you control what you share (including contact information, where you shop and what you purchase, and details about your personal and professional life), you have the highest level of Internet privacy; if you do not have control of your own data but someone else does, you experience a violation of privacy and you have a low level of privacy.

In short, you experience privacy when you can determine if, what, how, when, and where your data is shared or withheld to create security and safety for yourself in the digital world. This extends to the physical world, in actions such as preventing Google from posting a picture of your living room as the Google van drives by your home. The energy it takes to determine how to prevent invasions of your privacy, as well launch reactions to violations of your privacy, is a part of what I’m calling Digital Distress.

3. Creepy and Sneaky. There exists a vast market seeking to manipulate your lack of understanding about privacy issues. There is a truth to the recently coined phrase regarding software applications: “If you don’t know what the product is [what they are selling], the product being sold is YOU.” Your data – where you live, where you shop, how much income you earn, where you vacation, how you invest — is the gold for which many companies seek, and data mining has become a hotly debated action justified by terms of use agreements that none but a lawyer can understand.

I recently tested a small audience on their thoughts about their own privacy. I asked how many people were confident that their home address wasn’t on the Internet associated with their name. Most people raised their hands. I asked those with a computer to go to a website called Spokeo, and to type in their name or email address. Suddenly, the room filled with a moderate level of alarm. Most of them did not know that hundreds of bot-generated data brokering sites can – and do! – collect your public information (such as home addresses from the past decade), and make these available to anyone who does a search, unless you as the consumer go through their process to remove your name from the site. Instead of opting in, you have to opt out, and the small print informs you that your information may be added back onto these sites after a few months. Now, isn’t that lovely! Stalkers across America can have a hey-day with these sites.

Ed note: Spokeo CSP Emanuel Pleitez spoke at pii2012 and informed conferees about how Spokeo works as well as the opt-out clause. I’m not surprised that some of the Twitter chat in the following days was about my question during the Consumer Insights talk about how many people in the room had been stalked (almost all the women had raised their hands). 

It was clear to me that what people don’t like is sneaky, i.e. websites and applications that make you opt-out instead of opt in, and that make the opt-out difficult in any step of the use of the website.  They also don’t like creepy, i.e. websites and applications that gather information in such a way that could violate your sense of connection with others, such as damaging your reputation, or that told you one thing but delivered something else, i.e. “we developed this app that creates kittens, but then we also discovered it shoots bullets”.

An example of something I believe may be both sneaky and creepy is the use of Biometrics by big Social Media applications. In April 2012, I received a notification that my Facebook profile picture would be enlarged by April 30, 2012, and I should adjust the picture appropriately by moving the image to center. If your picture is less than 180 pixels wide, you’ll receive an error message. From the Help Center:

Is there a size limit for the picture I use as my profile picture?

Yes. Your profile picture must be at least 180 pixels wide. If you are unsure of whether or not your picture meets this requirement, you can right-click on the picture to see the photo properties, which should include the photo dimensions (ex: 100 x 91 would be too small).

If you can’t find the photo’s dimensions, try uploading the picture and assigning it as your profile picture. You will see the following error message if the image is too small: 

Biometrics is the relatively new application available to software applications that allows bots to identify your image and use it to not only identify you for something like another photo (such as a tag), but also guess your weight, age, gender, and interests. You could walk into a restaurant, have your image scanned unbeknownst to you, and an app could count you as “Asian, female, age 35- 45”, broadcast that information to a dating website, and allow others to select that same establishment for its male to female ratio. You  may have no idea how violating that would be, though the issue here is about notification and about choice. Imagine biometrics and genetic information being displayed on the Internet for purchase, and you’ll understand more why this kind of information is important for you to control. If this sounds like Big Brother, it is. And you will not be able to stop it as much as you’ll be able to restrict its use by voting and being heard.

Back to FaceBook: by insisting on the enlargement of your profile, FB makes more of the overall profile pictures compliant with biometric filters, which need a larger image in order to identify you. While you can use  picture of a flower, outrageous costuming and make-up, or a picture of your pet, you need to be given the reasons why your profile picture was enlarged. And I mean ALL THE REASONS and ramifications. Until then, my own profile picture is that of myself with large sunglasses. A floppy hat will do well too (my present hat is a shark head. Long story.).

4. Become proactive about your privacy. While I’d like to believe that big companies and applications would start asking more consumer advocates how to steer the development of their applications before they are launched, the big driving factor of MONEY will probably keep them from being your privacy coach. You must become more proactive about your privacy. It means no one is going to hold your hand and teach you if you do not raise your hand and ask for help. If you simply follow what everyone else is doing, you will miss the steps others may be taking, such as limiting use, tamping down photos and personal information they share to a more limited audience, or restricting who can see what. Search for yourself on the Internet at least once a month on a computer that isn’t cached to you (i.e. doesn’t have your recent searches on it), and see what comes up. Search and destroy anything that you do not feel comfortable with.

If you want to use the Social Media sites, then read your TOUA and ask questions. If you don’t want your photos used by others, either don’t post them on Flickr and Facebook, or learn to place a digital watermark on the photo. If you are out in a public space and people are snapping photos, wear sunglasses. If someone takes your picture and doesn’t ask for permission, ask them what they plan to do with their photos. If you’re the one snapping the photos, always ask for permission. [BTW, I get written permission to snap photos that include children, as in a blog post I did recently about Orcas Island].

One thing I think every reader should do is learn how to turn their settings on their browers to “do not track“, thereby preventing companies from tracking you  (and contacting you) through your virtual errands on these third-party platforms. You don’t even need to visit these company websites, as they will use the info from your browser to contact you. The proposal was introduced in May 2012, and you can institute it any time. Think of it as a “Do Not Call” for your computer.

5. Decrease your Digital Distress by being smart. Since technology changes overnight, there isn’t any way for you to keep pace unless you have a ton of people working for you to free you up from the other things in life you should be spending time with, like family, your spouse, your important interests, and your own self-development. The point I’m making: don’t get sidelined or obsessed with this stuff.

Create a quick, three-step process that will help decrease your Digital Distress, such as asking yourself about how your data will be handled when adding a new application to your phone or computer, checking the application’s privacy policy, and asking questions when necessary. Additionally, consider modifying or restricting elements of your online activity. If you find yourself harmed by someone else’s use of Social Media, either confront that behavior, or restrict their access to you. If you use Social Media for your work (such as branding, advertising, or fundraising), you may want to join a online group, such as a LinkedIn group, that contains similar professionals who can share the latest developments in use and misuse, which can help you stay on top of what you need to know.

Digital Distress can quickly affect your psychological well-being. While we try to shrug off zingers, data brokering, and a website’s use of our data to send a slew of unwanted advertisement as “just the way it is”, client are telling me they are tired of it. I would say they are not just tired: they are literally feeling sick because of it. The worlds they created and curated online since 2005 or earlier are being crashed by virtual tanks. For some, the reaction is to retreat, but then they are faced with an isolation that they perceive their virtually social colleagues are exempt. For others, they grow a tougher outer shell, or dismiss the actions as not worthy of their energy or effort. From observation only, I believe Digital Distress is a part of every person’s online existence. Those free from it are not a part of the Digital Age, but a retreat from it is next to impossible (unless you want to completely remove yourself from the Internet, and enjoy a Digital Death). Instead, I encourage you to walk through the steps above, and formulate your own plan to modify your use so you are back in control of your data, while limiting access to those you trust.

For those of you following my research to make telemental health services available, this conversation is the backdrop into my investigation of such VoIP platforms such as Skype, which has failed HIPAA compliancy on several accounts. It has also failed my privacy standards, which is why it cannot be adopted for use in the world of psychology without seriously putting health practitioners at risk for breach-of-contract lawsuits from third-party payors (health insurance companies). Luckily for us, there are other options available, including the old-fashioned phone call, as well as some fancy-schmancy Internet-based communications platforms that are safe for our use.

It’s simply not true that only those who have something to hide are worried about privacy issues on the Internet. Every person online has the right to control his or her own information and its use. It’s not that we do not have any privacy by agreeing to be online; it’s that we have less privacy if we chose to be digital inhabitants, but that does not mean we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Learn to protect your privacy, and you’ll see your Digital Distress decrease.

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