Ten Years Later: Self-Surveillance and Social Media

In December 2005, the NSA wiretapping scandal broke, another wave in the great tide of surveillance stemming from 9/11. Our latest gift to intelligence agencies, the PATRIOT Act, had set civil libertarians on edge for the foreseeable future, and now those anxieties exploded in an “I told you so” moment revealing government ears cocked to our private communions. My high-school classmates were unperturbed. I stormed about, ranting that this was an infringement on our basic privacies, indecent exposure, an outrage! “Well, if you have nothing to hide,” came the common response, “why does it matter?” This could have everything to do with the rich white town where I grew up. These kids were not regularly violated by state authority. But it may have had to do with something else as well, a phenomenon nearly as defining of the naughts as terror: the internet. This was senior year, and we were all eagerly awaiting receipt of our college.edu email addresses so that we could register for Facebook. We already had MySpace and Live Journal. We were in the midst of discovering how to expose ourselves. And so what if the government got in on the game?

When the attacks of 9/11 occurred, the as yet unnamed “Facebook generation” was in middle or high school. I was in the eighth grade. Everyone remembers the nebulous feeling of threat; we were informed by our teachers, our parents, our president, and the media that we were “under attack” by a shady network that had infiltrated flight schools and lord only knew what else. The fight itself would be nebulous and wide-ranging. Right away we began waging war, and instituted a series of domestic security measures designed to root out the threats at home. The War on Terror was as easily invoked to justify domestic intelligence activities as the wars abroad, and we would discover that the tactics had a disconcerting way of crossing that boundary too. It was all one fight. The impossibility of catching a flight without being frisked to within an inch of one’s life became a cultural trope, popping up in New Yorker cartoons and generating solidarity for long lines of strangers taking off their shoes and belts in public. But no one protested the airport wringer too much; the least we civilians could contribute to our common security was our privacy.

As a result, a new generation of young people—still young today—grew up in an atmosphere of paranoid insecurity, cultivated by a range of authority figures positing such solutions as those invasive airport checks, increased background checks, “if you see something, say something” campaigns, and more powers for intelligence agencies. Politicians and reporters framed the 9/11 catastrophe as a “massive failure of intelligence.” Therefore we needed more intelligence. Therefore we needed full body scans, the ability to check library records, and tap phones. As much as the answer to 9/11 was war, in equal measure it was surveillance.

None of this went totally without notice. Some liberals, libertarians, and leftists were loathe to augment the surveillance powers of an administration whose interest in the private lives of citizens bordered on the voyeuristic. (Remember the president’s concern for the “sanctity” of your marriage?) Over the last decade, aggressive advocates of civil liberties like Glenn Greenwald have become stars of the left commentariat. But the trend toward spying has been relentless. The PATRIOT Act of 2001 famously passed with a lone dissenting voice in the Senate. It has remained in place, and key provisions were renewed this year. In May, according to the New York Times, Senators Wyden and Udall “claimed…that the Justice Department had secretly interpreted the so-called Patriot Act in a twisted way, enabling domestic surveillance activities that many members of Congress do not understand.” Wyden noted ominously that “when the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the Patriot Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.” We still don’t really know what he meant. The NSA scandal, one would think, should have ended warrantless domestic spying. Now it seems that the practice maybe continuing under the PATRIOT Act. But, again, who knows. This December, instead of the War on Christmas, pundits argued the relative merits of the full body scan. So much for just taking off our shoes. The debates continued, but there we were, displayed in all our helpless transparency to the security staff of our local airports.

Of course, I’ve quite literally seen more revealing photos on Facebook. Glowing mothers-to-be have started posting sonograms. While government lawyers have wracked their brains for justifications to comb through our personal lives, the things we offer up voluntarily are more intimate still. It isn’t just Facebook, and it’s scarcely new to wag a finger at social media’s greedy incitements to reveal ourselves. But the ways in which voluntary sharing interacts with government data collection both ideologically and in daily practice are worth raising questions about a decade after 9/11, about a decade into Web 2.0, seven years after the founding of Facebook, and five after Twitter.

To return to my classmates’ attitudes. Their ideas about privacy would almost inevitably have been shaped by their early experiences with online sharing. Those same people today have a lot more experience with sharing, and on more platforms. Just to pick on the easiest target, let’s take the collective piece of performance art that is Facebook. When, alongside MySpace.com, it began to achieve widespread popularity, expert and parental anxiety ran high. New York Times headlines warned, “Young People’s Web Postings Worry Summer Camp Directors,” “A Lesson for Parents on ‘MySpace Madness,’” and “When Information Becomes T.M.I.” All of these headlines are from 2006, the year I graduated high school, and in truth there was nary a good word for the site to be found in the paper of record. College students and techy early adopters embraced Facebook nonetheless, and soon Facebook embraced everyone else. Everybody and their mother has an account now, and so do college professors and journalists. My grandmother uses it to share family photos, perhaps not aware of the vast networks through which they now travel.

Every so often there is a scandal. When Facebook surreptitiously changed its “terms of service” in 2008 to allow Facebook greater privileges with user information, users protested through Facebook groups, resulting in the terms’ modification. New York Times reporters have developed a journalistic cottage industry out of spinning horror stories around Facebook’s violations of privacy. But people have not quit Facebook, even when it tells us too much about each other or demonstrates its administrators’ cavalier attitude toward our information. After all, David Kirkpatrick reports that CEO Mark Zuckerberg “strongly believes that people are rapidly losing their interest in sequestering their data. So to keep the service in line with what he sees as changing mores, he continues to push Facebook’s design toward more exposure of information…” Excepting some mostly impotent Facebook group protests and the occasional gasps of horror, Americans have yielded easily to technologies that erode privacy. Furthermore, those same technologies have been recast as inherently progressive tools, celebrated in such lazy journalistic affectations as the “Twitter revolution.” A whole industry of “transparency” organizations, dedicated to opening up government through cloud-based data collection, has sprung up as the tech-happy answer to American political cynicism.

This evolution leaves us in a peculiar spot regarding our own privacy, and the government’s increased license to spy. Can we take great pride in exposing ourselves without forgetting the reasons that private information is important? That was the concern arising most immediately from my classmates’ blasé attitude. As our conceptions of privacy loosen, we’re being trained by Facebook and its ilk to trade personal information for things we want all the time—more “friends,” convenient shopping, ambiguous forms of social capital. Data about ourselves is not sacred, but rather a commodity, and a pretty cheap one at that. Why not trade it for security in a time of fear?

All we can really do here is speculate, although there is a wide network of scholars engaging with changing privacy norms. But there’s one front that needs little guesswork. When the NSA sucked up all our data, it did so with the cooperation of big telecommunications companies. AT&T had the data, the NSA just borrowed it. These companies know lots about us, and now social media companies know more, and the data has gotten quite personal. We know that corporations from Facebook to Google parlay our search interests and personal postings into advertising dollars all the time. The very profit structure of these companies drive them to push you to share more. So now we have great big companies, hoarding more of your personal information than AT&T and operating in a country rife with national security paranoia, and a government armed with an ongoing secret interpretation of domestic spying laws and a history of indiscriminately seizing personal data from corporations, which are disdainful of privacy anyway. We facilitate the degradation of our privacy on all fronts, often with enthusiasm.

An awful lot of ink has been spilled over the narcissism cultivated by online sharing—the daily building of a personal brand, the obsessive monitoring of self-image. And maybe the human race is doomed to a future of commodified naval gazing. But I think the jury will be out on that one for a long time. It would be well worth shifting our attention somewhat from the psychological ramifications of social media to the more concrete intersection between voluntary sharing and the surveillance state that lefties have long deplored. If one legacy of 9/11 is the mass trading in of privacy for security, we might wonder at what intrusion tomorrow’s high school students will fail to raise an eyebrow.

Sarah Leonard is an editorial assistant at Dissent and an editor of the New Inquiry.

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