Things Facebook Thinks I Care About, Ranked

20. Cats
19. Millennials
18. Adventure
17. Fatherhood
16. Renminbi
15. Cloud computing
14. Orange (fruit)
13. Gratitude
12. Bag
11. Fluid dynamics
10. Edible mushroom
9. Laser
8. Company
7. Pressure
6. Cervical vertebrae
5. Self-esteem
4. Life
3. Water
2. Year
1. Human skin color

Sourced from Facebook Ad Preferences. This post is also published on Medium.

Nothing to Hide? Illusions of Privacy and Security at MIT

Last Friday I had the pleasure of speaking at the MIT Technology and Culture Forum’s event at the MIT Museum—Nothing to Hide? Illusions of Privacy and Security. As part of the museum’s Second Fridays, the event centered around an installation, a performance, and our talk following to discuss the themes in these pieces.

I really enjoyed watching people interact with the Please Empty Your Pockets by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer installation. The piece subverts security paradigms by turning the scanning process into something artistic and personal. People scanned everything from pocket change to wallets and cell phones, to IDs and pictures of themselves or their loved ones. Scanned items go in on a blank white conveyer belt, but they come out with digital traces piled around them from museum goers prior.

The piece touches on some of the themes I’ve been talking about lately about the hidden uses of data. The security scanner is a literal black box. People were willing to scan their credit card, with the number and name visible. We trust that the scanned images are only being used for the purposes of the exhibit, but we have no guarantee of that except for the description that states the memory contains 600,000 objects.

I was inspired to flip the model once more, scanning the scanner by turning on my front facing camera as I sent my iPhone down the track. I really like how it turned out as a record of the piece as experienced by my object. But it also served as a means of subverting the system, inserting my subjectivity in the face of an objectifying system. It allowed me to “see” the scanner and unobscured the inner workings of the black box.


Right next to the scanner was a performance of literal security theater, a Kafka-esque short play by the Underground Railway Theater about the hassles of airport security and the diversionary tactics of TSA agents. The customer only wants to know why she is being scanned, and what the agent finds so interesting, but she’s not given any details about the process. It’s an information asymmetry. We know they know something, but we don’t know what, exactly.

In the panel discussion with Catherine D’Ignazio, moderated by John Durant, I talked briefly about how these pieces touch on the theme of “Nothing to Hide?” by illustrating that we don’t always know what we’re hiding from. We’re interacting with black boxes. We understand and trust the scanner because we can only imagine the current context of the use of that information in the museum setting, just like we only think of our friends when we write a Facebook status update.

The curated evening also touched on what I wrote about in this piece for The Atlantic on our “Data Doppelgängers and the Uncanny Valley of Personalization.” Our concern with the creepy lies in the fact that something of ourselves, either our personal effects or our life history lives somewhere in the database. There’s an interest in seeing ourselves as the machine sees us, perhaps why so many were compelled to scan their likeness, their ID, their passport.

Audience questions centered around law and policy, citing the technology lag problem. I offered that those are only some of the levers of control we have as a society to assuage these concerns, citing Lawrence Lessig’s idea of laws, code, markets, and norms. I think the levers that need the most attention right now are market and norms. These are consumer driven demands. We won’t find companies competing on privacy and data practices until we ask for it and perhaps are willing to pay for it, as well. Neither will law reflect our represented desires unless we make it clear what our evolving norms. We’re starting to have those conversations, like this one and others elsewhere, so I’m optimistic.

Use Google? Time to Get Real About Protecting Your Digital Self - The Atlantic

My thoughts on Google’s upcoming privacy and terms of service changes, the consolidation of user data profiles, and what it means for our digital selves in The Atlantic.

To me, the result of this consolidation that gives me cause for concern is the fundamental integration of my entire digital life. When you start pulling together email data with browser data, that really begins to paint a near-complete picture of a life lived on the internet. It’s not just search terms, not just circles of friends. It’s every last digital scrap of me. As we’ve moved to cloud-based services, browsers have become the first and perhaps the only application we need to open to get things done on our computers or our phones. I’ve come to terms with the fact that the convenience of internet-enabled life involves a data trail, but now Google is demanding free reign (March 1 going forward) to piece those data trails together with all the other bits of information it has collected about us. 

Read more.

[Review] Privacy and Big Data

Privacy and Big DataPrivacy and Big Data by Terence Craig
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This O’Reilly Media book provides a thorough and easy to understand overview of the forces at play in the ongoing privacy discussion. The authors do a decent job of outlining some of the fundamental differences in the US v. EU approach to privacy, but the overview tends to create a false dichotomy between these two regimes, giving little weight to the Asian or 3rd world regulation of privacy, or the implications of a lack thereof.

I particularly like how they handle the discussion of advertising use of data (targeted ads are relatively innocuous, and are the backbone of the internet economy), and they make a fair attempt to bring the privacy debate past this point, directing further discussion and energy towards the real, more insidious and as yet unrealized potential harms from data uses.

I had to wonder, of course, about the business motivations behind the book. The writers represent their big data company, PatternBuilders, and I thankfully couldn’t fault them for not staying objective throughout the book. But in their broad survey of the current state of things, they’ve managed to not be at all prescriptive or helpful in suggesting what happens, or should happen next. For that reason, this book has a pretty short shelf life (that is, unless O’Reilly does their book update thing, which is cool in an “experiments in publishing” kind of way). Instead, they’ve saved their personal experiences and predilections about privacy for the afterward, which feels (not surprisingly) like an afterthought and a cop out.

View all my reviews