Apr 15, 2010
My favorite television show of all time is Veronica Mars. In every episode, a pint-sized, delicate-featured blond high-schooler takes on bike gangs and powerful men in order to solve a crime. She doesn’t have any futuristic gadgets, apart from a taser and some tracking devices, but she always figures out who did it (why, oh why was this show cancelled- curse you CW). For Veronica, the key to solving a crime is using her surveillance skills to uncover to perfect piece of evidence.
Surveillance has become much easier thanks to the Internet and its ability to track you. Well, the Internet itself does not follow you around, but there is an array of websites and tools that announce a user’s location, purchase history, or destination. The website Foursquare allows you to instantaneously publish your location on a city map- and find your friends’ locations. The site Blippy proclaims that it is “a fun and easy way to see and discuss what everyone is buying.” In other words, Blippy publishes your credit card purchase history. And, of course, Twitter allows the user to tweet their schedule for the day, down to the minute. All of these tools are “transactional information” (Blom 2004, p. 297) and make it significantly easier to find out where the bad guy has been.
Once Veronica has caught the bad guy, she wants to be sure that he will be locked up in prison. This comfort level could be achieved by Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon, a prison model described in detail in the Michel Foucault article. Betham designed a prison that would allow the guards to view all of the inmates and not be seen themselves. The inmates would not be able to see anyone else. The benefits of this arrangement are obvious: “If the inmates are convicts, there is no danger of a plot, an attempt at collective escape, the planning of new crimes of the future, bad reciprocal influences” (Foucault 1979, p. 303). The inmates are in jail for a reason, so the more surveillance, the better.
I’m sure there’s a saying that captures this more eloquently, but there’s an old idea that perfectly connects surveillance and privacy: If you’re doing something bad, then your privacy does not need to be respected and surveillance is justifiable. If you’re not doing anything wrong then you can still try to have some degree of privacy, but surveillance shouldn’t matter because you don’t have anything to hide, right? The Jones and Soltren article explores the privacy preferences of college students on Facebook and determines that students are very easy to surveil.
First of all, Jones and Soltren were able to download information from the majority of four university’s Facebook pages. Even though they didn’t do anything with them, they were still presented with screen names and mobile phone numbers for complete strangers (Jones and Soltren 2005, p. 9). If Veronica needed to get this information for one of her cases, it is clear that it would have been fairly easy to do.
Some of the conclusions that this study came to include that “A substantial proportion of students share identifiable information” and “The most active users disclose the most” (Jones and Soltren 2005, p. 16). Not all students published their mobile phone numbers, but most had their real name, high school, and interests or activities. This seemingly harmless information is enough to identify and locate a person. Facebook users may think that choosing some privacy options is sufficient, but truthfully, any online profile holds valuable and accessible information.
Veronica, along with other private detectives, relies on her suspect’s forgetfulness in order to catch them. She can assume that even if they didn’t drop their driver’s license at the crime scene, some clue will turn up that will lead her to them. This clue might be found from their Facebook page, or their daily tweets, or, if they’re a really naive criminal, their Blippy account. The inherent lack of privacy on the Internet makes surveillance easier than tailing someone in a car. Veronica may appreciate these features, but users must keep in mind who could be looking at them.