- The Imperative of Responsibility: In Search of an Ethics for… by Hans Jonas
- Ethics in an Age of Technology: Gifford Lectures, Volume Two… by Ian G. Barbour
- Blood Matters: From Inherited Illness to Designer Babies, How… by Masha Gessen
Many people no longer think twice about sharing things online that used to be uniquely private –whether they are baby photos from your child’s 1st birthday party, a video from your wedding, or just a photo from your weekend outing– and tacitly condone personal information that is available by default, like images of your house on Google Earth. We’re living out more and more of our day to day activities on the web, too: we look at Amazon’s quick and easy shipping and think it’s just that much more convenient than having to make a stop at the local bookstore. We waved goodbye to Blockbuster rentals as streaming video became the new, more convenient technology. We share music playlists, newspaper articles we’ve read, and videos we’ve watched with our social networks, not only blurring the line between what is private about our lives and what is public, but also allowing for a stockpile of information about our likes, dislikes, and shopping habits to be accumulated as a result.
So what’s to be said for all this personal information you’ve been posting?
The web is taking note. Maybe you’ve started to notice that you’re being followed…That pesky ad for shoes you looked at online? You are starting to see it on every website you go to. Recommended links and videos that seem to serendipitously match up with your interests? It’s probably because you searched for the topic on Google, and the information was used to tailor those video results to you. Whether you are aware of it or not, every site you visit, every search you enter, and every click or “like” you make online is being tracked and stored, and used to create a more personalized web experience for you. The information is compiled to create your “digital doppelganger”, a collection of information that is coming to represent you just as importantly, and sometimes more importantly, than your in-person self.
In “I Know Who You Are And I Saw What You Did,” Chicago-Kent School of Law Professor Lori Andrews examines this technological shift in compelling detail. At her talk at Santa Clara University, she explored a number of fascinating topics related to her point, many of which the average web user overlooks.
Your searches for particular things can be stored about you:
What you search for is one of the many ways Google extracts information about you. Your digital profile –your age, location, gender, shopping habits, and so on — assembled from your many activities online, can be sold to companies who want to know more about you, whether it be a political campaign looking to target a certain demographic or a company looking to sell you stuff through ads. (For example , recently it was revealed that the Republican candidates targeted social media users who referenced The Bible in their posts).
And what happens when this information is used in other ways? Andrews raises the point that searching for mental disorders or health problems may affect your “digital identity” — so you may be advertised to as if you have a disease, even if you are just doing research or looking up something for a friend. Credit and insurance can be influenced by your online profile, too. Andrews said,“You might be shown a credit card with a lower credit limit, not because of your credit history but because of your race, sex, zip code, or the types of websites you visit.” One man’s credit went from $10,800 to $3,800 while he was on his honeymoon simply because aggregate data showed, “other customers who have used their card at establishments where you recently shopped have a poor repayment history with American Express.” What you do online doesn’t disappear into the ether; it is tracked and analyzed, sometimes having significant real-world consequences.
The web is stereotyping you:
Another side of the “personalized web” is that web searches are increasingly
tailored towards your individual digital identity, an interesting phenomenon known as the “filtered” or “tailored” web. For example, Andrews conducted an experiment in her class where the females and males Googled the same topic, but received different search results. (In other words, they Googled something, at the same time, but were presented with different information.) Why? Because the web characterized them in a certain way based on their previous purchase history and their personal data (including their gender), and so results were ‘tailored’ to fit their perceived profile.
This “Filter Bubble” raises many ethical questions. Andrews writes, “When young people in poor neighborhoods are bombarded with advertisements for trade schools, will they be more likely than others their age to forgo college? And when women are shown articles about celebrities rather than stock market trends, will they be less likely to develop financial savvy? Advertisers are drawing new redlines, limiting people to the roles society expects them to play.” Her point is well-taken. If different populations are seeing information and products that are tailored to their perceived identity, what are the implications for gender and race discrimination with this kind of web search? For the democratization of information, what happens when instead of people seeing the news as it is, they see the news as it is tailored to their interests and ideologies?
What Happens On Facebook Doesn’t Stay On Facebook
One of Andrew’s most compelling points is the ways in which online sharing has broader and more serious consequences than any type of sharing we’ve encountered in the past. The issue, she says, is that many people use social networks as a “virtual water cooler” where they vent about their jobs or school, or other frustrations — but the venue is far more public and has a greater reach than a watercooler conversation with a few colleagues, and the consequences can therefore be greater.
For example: teachers have been fired for calling their students “germ bags” on Facebook, or joking, “Had a good day today, didn’t want to kill even one student”. One teacher was fired for setting a bad example by posting photos of herself drinking alcohol on her Facebook page. Doctors have faced similar disciplinary action for posting sensitive information about patients online, such as a status update about a patient’s condition; a delivery man was fired for posting the receipts of ‘bad tippers’, which featured the customers’ addresses. Andrews poses the question, should information on social networks be considered private, or should we be held responsible by employers, and the law, for what is posted there? “Unlike Vegas, what happens in Facebook doesn’t stay in Facebook,” she posits.
We also face increased issues of monitoring — a major legal and ethical issue. In Rosemont, Pennsylvania, students and teachers were issued school laptops to bring home with them by the school, and didn’t learn until months later that the laptops were periodically taking photos of the them through the laptop webcam – as well as screenshots of all the sites they visited – all of which were being sent back to the school by a tracking company that had been installed. One student was falsely accused of taking drugs when he was actually eating a Mike and Ike. Other students were photographed after taking showers or while getting dressed. After a settlement, the photos were eventually destroyed, but the scenario shows how tracking and surveillance can be installed without the users knowledge. Sometimes little recourse can be taken to recall and retrieve information that has already been gathered.
Social Networks Change The Courtroom
As a lawyer, Lori Andrews knows first hand how social networks have presented new problems in the courtroom, most notably in regards to privacy. Judges are “Friending” lawyers and even plaintiffs, presenting a conflict of interest; jurors “tweet” out sensitive case information throughout the trial (sometimes even prematurely announcing verdicts) or do online research that violates the rules of the court which state that only information presented in the court should be considered. Defendants are judged based on social networking profiles (for example, ‘provocative photos’ posted on MySpace/Facebook have been included in rape cases to undermine defendants’ credibility). Andrews says that adjustments need to be put in place in order to address, not ignore, the widespread use of social networks and the web in modern day society.
And what laws should we have against online bullies? William Francis Melchert-Dinkel pressured people in an online suicide chatroom to commit suicide; up to 6 people supposedly did so after chatting with him. Is he guilty of a crime? What about the mother Lori Drew, who created a fake profile posing as a young attractive boy to taunt her daughter’s ex-friend Megan Meier– is she responsible for Meier’s suicide which occurred minutes after Meier left the note, “You are the kind of boy a girl would kill herself over”? Is Dharum Ravi responsible for the death of Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after Ravi broadcast him hooking up with another guy with the tweet, “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat with me between the hours of 9:30 and 12:00. Yes, it’s happening again”? (Ravi was recently convicted.) Andrews says the law needs to be reexamined and updated to address these types of cases.
Fundamentally, the most important legal question is: who should have access to what information? So far, the rules are poorly outlined. It’s illegal to wiretap your phone calls or read your mail to gain information about you, but it’s not illegal to scrape your gmail for data. (Ads are targeted at you on the gmail sidebar based on what you write in your e-mails). Google searches for flu symptoms provide better data of flu outbreaks than traditional public health measures. Should public health officials be granted access to these searches? The web is growing faster and faster, teeming with information, and the laws that govern how we manage it have yet to fully catch up.
A Social Network Constitution
The 850 million+ members of Facebook make it the 3rd largest nation in the world; so it’s time , Andrews says, that we figured out how to govern it. Andrews says that we should think of the web as a new nation — what she calls “The Facebook Nation” — and that as citizens, we should have the right to know what information is being recorded about us, and in what capacity it is being used. Some things should come as natural rights; for example, people should be able to opt out of 3rd parties using their information. And people should also be allowed total knowledge of who has access to their information. This will preserve our right to privacy and freedom of expression, while still enabling us to connect, share, and use the web safely moving forward.
Overall, Andrews says, we need to establish new ways of handling issues that arise from living our lives online, including cyber bullying, increased sharing, and an overall trend towards things that were once private being made public. In order to address these issues, it’s important we engage both law and ethics to guide our decision making. This way, we can govern the online world with the same intended values with which we govern our real-world nations.
By: Masha Gessen
“I belong to a generation that grew up believing we were shaped by love, care, or lack of it – or perhaps even the number of books on our parents’ bookshelves. But we will go to our graves believing that it is a combination of letters in our genetic code that determines how we get there, and when. (Our) future will rest on a different understanding not only of what causes things to go wrong in human beings but of what makes a human being in the first place, and what connects any one of us to any other.”
11 years after her mother’s death from ovarian and breast cancer, author Masha Gessen, an Ashkenazi Jew prone by nature of her bloodline to a variety of genetic diseases, underwent genetic testing to gain insight into whether she shared a fate a similar to her mother’s. The results indicated unsettling news: Masha did indeed possess the BRCA1 gene, a tumor suppressor gene associated with an increased risk of cancer, which gives her up to an 85% risk of developing breast cancer and a 50% risk of developing ovarian cancer in her lifetime. Faced with the high prospect of disease, the same disease which took her mother’s life at the age of 49, Masha becomes a “previvor” – a term coined for those who have not yet been diagnosed with cancer but are undergoing treatment to battle a genetic predisposition to cancer– and begins her journey of surveying the gamut of prophylactic options to treat (or rather, prevent) her disease. Her doctors recommend a mastectomy (removal of both breasts) and an oophorectomy (removal of ovaries); and she considers everything from this type of radical surgery to, well, doing no treatment at all. In the process, she finds herself confronting the power and plight of living with this type of genetic knowledge; and she chronicles the stories of others, too, who through a simple blood test, find a story yet to be written by their genes, and wonder how much control they can have in changing the forecasted ending.
Gessen, a well known author and contributing writer to The New Republic, Granta, and Slate magazine (in which essays about genetic journey first appeared), writes honestly and reflectively about the difficult position she finds herself in. Her story is riddled with the often tragic choices people who learn their genetic predispositions can be faced with, as she intersperses her own reflections with stories of others confronting their genetic fates.
Ultimately, her book raises a profound question facing all of us in the genetic age: When it comes to obtaining our own genetic predispositions, is knowledge power? Is ignorance bliss? Despite her research and deep intellect, Gessen has no clear answers — perhaps because there is really no clear answer to be had. Yet her book provides a pensive, nuanced look at what it’s like to live in the burgeoning age of genetic information — “an approximation, albeit a very crude one,” Gessen writes, “of the rules by which my daughter’s generation will run its life.”
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