The Social Panopticon And You

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the All-Seeing Eye

5 min read
The Social Panopticon And You

Over the past couple of weeks, Google has gotten repeated bloody noses from tech journalists over the Buzz debacle. Before Buzz, Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” philosophy was backed up by a lot of carefully thought-out and well-executed applications. By comparison, Buzz was so uncharacteristically tone-deaf that people went from 0 to "conspiracy theory" in 60 seconds. Personally, I think Buzz was an honest mistake from a company that skews young, and young people are notorious for being laissez faire about privacy concerns.

Buzz is a symptom. The disease is the social media panopticon. Since Jeremy Bentham posited it as the ideal architecture for guarding inmates, the panopticon has been a popular stand-in for the all-seeing eye of the state (just Google “UK and panopticon” to see this dead horse beaten into fine dust). But the rolling media freakouts about Facebook picture tagging have illustrated that the bogeyman isn’t the government. It’s us watching us. We are the panopticon, man! Soylent green is people!

I wasn’t always like this. Once upon a time, friends would try to spook me with tales of Carnivore or Total Information Awareness, and my response was essentially, “make my day, punks!” Visions of airless basements filled my head, hapless poindexters drowning under unceasing floods of information overload.

I am dismayed to say, however, that the confluence of three developments has changed my mind completely.

1. Every single person on this earth has a camera phone and a blog
2. Facial recognition software and real time search are very close to eliminating the anonymizing effect of the data glut
3. Your employer is starting to wonder what you do when you’re not at work

I am now looking for a milliner who specializes in aluminum.

1. If you see something, say something

Back in January, some callow jerk started posting uncharitable photos of N-train commuters and their various offenses. Truly, it was little more than a tedious compendium of uninteresting irregularities: looking through a large purse while wearing a colorful scarf; putting on makeup; being overweight; being homeless. This was a mediocre data point in an exploding trend of cell phone camera auteurs posting their sartorial observations on their various blogs.

What made this story unique was that the N Train bit back: various Gothamist commenters, outraged by the attack on their privacy, did some basic detective work to broadcast his real name and likeness. There’s now even a special Twitter feed (Revenge of the N Train) whose goal is to catalog sightings of the guy.

It was all made possible by Google’s caching feature. When the Gothamist crowd started to hone in on his true identity, the N Train chronicler immediately jacked up all his Facebook privacy settings. Then he quickly erased some incriminating personal Tweets. No dice, buddy: the Gothamists posted an impressive array of screenshots of his cached personal Facebook page alongside older, pre-edited versions of his personal Twitter feed. “Now, if a potential employer Googles Pete Malachowsky, they'll find a Gothamist article talking about how creepy he is,” wrote commenter Hotcup gleefully in the article’s epilogue. “Serves his creepo a** right.”

On its own, this is a heartwarming tale of a city banding together and giving someone a taste of his own medicine. But now consider how difficult it will be for Malachowsky to clear his record. This excellent report from Cornell Information Technologies lays out the steps he would need to take to get the information removed from Google.

You must go through their policy process for removing information from their caching technology. Not only is that a lot of bureaucracy, but also you should know that while Google is the dominant search engine on the Internet today, it might not be tomorrow. Moreover, other search engines operate currently on the Internet and so it is not just Google whom you might have to contact in order to remove a page.

Now just imagine having to go through this if you haven't done anything to deserve it.

2. Can You See Me Now?

Consider also the development of video and image recognition software. Right now, governments and corporations are heavily funding face recognition software, governments for purposes of defeating terrorism, corporations for purposes of making awesome augmented reality apps. As with every technology ever, any great military capability will trickle down to the average person with a blog. Real-time search will pre-sort and catalog every single bit of piffle that hits the Internet--including that picture of you picking your nose on the N train.¿

A year ago, the launch of MOBVIS building image-recognition software proved that computers can now autonomously identify individual buildings. The sure-to-be-upcoming Google Face app will have your image sorted and catalogued the second it is created. So imagine you’ve had your picture snapped by five different people today, all populating their mediocre fame-whore blogs. The new generation of information aggregators will suck up those pictures, pre-sort them and slap your name before you can say “tinfoil hat.”

3.  "Sometimes I doubt your commitment to Sparkle Motion"

Recently, NPR sent out a missive to its journalists. The jist of it was this: Don't do anything off work hours that you wouldn't intentionally do to represent the company.

Your Facebook page, your blog entries and your tweets – even if you intend them to be personal messages to your friends or family – can be easily circulated beyond your intended audience. This content, therefore, represents you and NPR to the outside world as much as a radio story or story for does.

I'm not singling out NPR. Universities have instituted policies that spell out that certain activities, done off the premises and ostensibly outside the penumbra of the University’s authority, will get your butt kicked out of school. At the University of Arkansas, for example, athletes and Greek Life members must have their facebook profiles open to screening at all times. These preventive policies were put in place to allow organizations to police online activities much the way they police other behaviors (political protesting, sexual relationships, alcohol consumption, etc).

I’m not saying NPR shouldn’t try to inoculate itself against some of the truly bad PR that can result from employees gone wild. The law firm Norton Rose is probably still putting raw steak on the black eye it received from the Claire Swire incident almost a decade ago. The Carlyle Group was poorly represented by the young Lothario whom it relocated to S. Korea, and then promptly re-relocated to the unemployment line after his conquest-bragging emails reached top brass.

Beyond policing existing employees, it’s been much reported that companies are using social networking sites to vet their potential hires (prompting a phenomenally popular New York TimesFacebook privacy how-to by Sarah Peretz). The Peretz article puts the number of companies using Facebook in particular at 30 percent. “In today's tough economy,” Peretz goes on to say, “the question of whether to post those embarrassing party pics could now cost you a paycheck in addition to a reputation. (Keep that in mind when tagging your friends' photos, too, won't you?)" Sure, but what happens when I can tag people who are not my friends and I don’t care about the consequences to their lives?

In conclusion, here's my nightmare scenario: After an especially rough day at Sparkle Motion Corp., I get on the N Train cradling a big bottle of Jim Beam. An officer of the law takes me downtown for public inebriation, and my perp walk is captured for posterity by a jerk with a camera phone and a blog. Even though his dumb blog has only three readers, Google Face identifies my sodden visage by name, and puts those pictures into the eternal damnation of Google Image search results. My employer, seized with a sudden itch to make sure its employees are representing Sparkle Motion as well as they possibly could be, finds the evidence of my malingering ways, and I get fired. In a terrible economy, my next job application is derailed by a simple Google Search.

Am I overreacting? Can someone please give me The Talk I used to give my paranoid friends?


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