I Know Who You Are…

Sep 09, 2013 No Comments by

Everyone knows that the Internet should be approached with caution. That there is a nebulous someone looking over your shoulder every time you open a web page is hardly news. What Lori Andrews’s I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did (Free Press, £10.46 at Amazon) shows, however, is that it is not just one person looking over your shoulder but a whole crowd, all jostling for a better view, who want to turn your Internet use to their advantage, whatever the cost to you.

Andrews is an American law professor and her book focuses primarily on Facebook and other social networks. The point she makes is that there is no such thing as privacy on the internet, or, as she puts it: “What happens in Facebook doesn’t stay in Facebook”. Users of social networks reveal far more about themselves than they should or that they are aware of and that in doing so they put themselves where the law, which has been tortoise-slow to try and get to grips with the new electronic age, cannot help them. Her book is essentially a recitation of horror stories about the misuse of information and the impotence of victims when what might be thought of as normal standards of privacy have been breached.

Andrews is not a Luddite but is well aware that the likes of Facebook, Bebo and MySpace are double edged. Facebook and Blackberry Messenger, for example, were instrumental in organising the protests that resulted in the Arab Spring, they were also used by the authorities to track down the ringleaders who often then faced summary discipline. Al-Qaeda is a regular user of YouTube, posing videos and more gruesome material of beheadings on the site; jihadists have “friended” Facebook just like any other special interest group.

What is particularly worrying, says Andrews, is the size of Facebook in particular. In 2011 it had 750 million members. If it were a country it would be the third biggest in the world. Indeed it acts like a state – it has citizens, an economy, relations with outsiders and a legal system. Its addictive powers are clear; one criminal in the middle of a hostage-taking stand-off with police nevertheless found time to update his status and add 15 new “friends”, all with SWAT officers on the other side of the door.

If Facebook users benefit from a sense of community and ease of communication the other beneficiary is big business. Information revealed on Facebook and Google is  used to direct “behavioural advertising” based on what your Internet interests reveal. In 2010 85 per cent of advertising agencies admitted using this technique. There can be macabre consequences: one couple who made a suicide pact online and discussed ways of killing themselves found advertisements appearing on their browser for sulphuric acid and lab equipment for the production of deadly gas. Other consequences can be more generally detrimental: “weblining”, for example, is the use of Internet data to decide credit ratings, benefit cuts and insurance refusals.

Personal information gathered by cookies, flash cookies (“a normal browser cookie on steroids”) and “deep packet inspection” lay out what is essentially our personal Internet doppelgänger. A data aggregator company such as Acxiom has 1,500 items of data on each of half a billion Americans – 96 per cent of the population. That is marketing gold dust. Legally there is little recourse. In one ruling the judge said that collecting data was not illegal because the intended aim was not criminal but to make money which, as Andrews points out, is a bit like saying that selling a private sex tape is consequence-free commercial enterprise.

Google disclaims responsibility for the material it shows up, claiming that it isn’t liable but individual websites are. Hence the near impossibility of getting defamatory or embarrassing material removed from the Internet. As one Sun Microsystems executive put it: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Posters and hosters frequently employ the get-out clause of “freedom of expression” (although that did not save the Domino’s Pizza employees who uploaded videos of themselves farting on a customer’s Margherita before serving it). A Pennsylvania high school meanwhile that remotely took more than 27,000 screenshots and 30,000 webcam pictures from its students’ and staff’s laptops – revealing what they were looking at and showing the users in their bedrooms, emerging from showers etc – was not prosecuted because there was no criminal intent.

This free-for-all is not going to go away, says Andrews. The law may eventually catch up but the abuses of Internet data will continue to grow exponentially. She cites one juror in the middle of a case who posted the details on Facebook and asked his friends to vote on whether he should plump for an “innocent” or “guilty” verdict. She points out that one in five relationships now starts on the Internet and lawyers regularly use social networks for leverage when they fail – totting up assets and looking for statements that will show the user to be an unfit mother or father. As far back as 2008 one in 10 American college admissions officers admitted visiting applicants’ social networking sites to check on their suitability. And more than a third of employers say that Facebook pictures of a job applicant drinking would prejudice them against hiring. The fact that you might boast on Facebook of smoking a spliff while downing industrial quantities of alcohol doesn’t mean that you actually did but that’s not the point. Essentially, anything you post can and will be used against you.

Andrews lays out her own “Social Network Constitution” which includes such articles as the right to control one’s image, the right to privacy of thoughts and sentiments, and the right to freedom of association. Her stipulations are commonsensical but they are not in place. Until that happens the only consolation to be drawn from her eye-opening book is that personal data is being collected in such vast amounts that one’s own Internet searches, email records and web purchase history will be so definitively buried amid everyone else’s that it remains unaccessed. It is though, according to Andrews, a vain hope.


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About the author

Michael Prodger is the art critic of Standpoint magazine and was formerly Literary Editor of The Sunday Telegraph. He has judged various literary prizes including the Man Booker, the Samuel Johnson and the Costa Prize. As well as art and books he is fascinated by gadgetry of every hue.