Law in the Internet Society

Becoming a Privacy-Aware Person: I Always Feel Like Somebody's Watching Me

-- By ReeceWalter - 15 Dec 2023

The First Month

The reality of mass surveillance by not just the government, but private social media companies, instilled a deep sense of being watched in me. I feel like I woke up in my cell at the panopticon after having voluntarily locked myself inside. Before the end of our second class meeting, I deleted Google Chrome and moved over to Firefox. I deleted my Twitter and regarded my phone warily from across the room. These attempts, while a start, did very little in reality. I kept my Instagram account, which I’m struggling to quit, despite it making my stomach churn every time I open it. The Great Hack brought the deepest discomfort to me because I took that personality test. In my high school psychology class, we took the Cambridge Analytica OCEAN test during our personality unit. Our teacher expressly directed us to “click on the one that says Cambridge; it’s the best one.” I remember being confused about how this could possibly be “research,” gathering answers to personality quizzes. I even remember that I looked up Cambridge Analytica and was confused because it seemed to have nothing to do with the University of Cambridge, but I was fifteen and had Algebra II homework due next period so I let it go. The Social Dilemma was nauseating as well, seeing the dependence of myself and my peers modeled and explained demystified the magic “connectedness” of social media. For the illusion of human connection, social media brings the casino model of stealing attention in exchange for intermittent reinforcement to build habits deeply ingrained in the wrinkles of the brains of today’s young adults. Once it successfully hooks our attention, it uses every little interaction as a “clue” as to what it can sell us. Thinking of the scale of the surveillance, the amount of energy it wastes and the production of waste it encourages through scores of advertisements, makes me feel sick. This discomfort continued each class meeting, becoming increasingly aware of the ways my carbon brain was no longer my own. Becoming privacy aware is uncomfortable, like watching an episode of Monsters Inside Me and spending the entire episode wondering about parasites that aren’t there. In contrast, I am acutely aware of the parasite hijacking my brain, but I don’t know if I have the nerve to cut it out with my own hands.

Futile Attempts to Fight the Parasite

Trying to remove the parasite without being privacy aware is a Sisyphean task that cannot succeed, despite valiant attempts. Twitter users, frustrated with Elon, circulated mass block lists. These block lists allowed a user to block scores of companies and twitter advertisers with a few clicks. Genius, I thought, bringing the same approach to Instagram: I would block all advertisers and trick the algorithms. But removing the parasite by removing the advertisers is the equivalent of tapping the slot machine screen to “make” me win. Even if I could successfully be a less profitable user for Meta, so long as I am a user of Meta, they still profit. Even if the advertisements are easy to ignore or minimize, Meta is still holding my attention captive, pretending it to be a means of connecting with my friends and family out-of-state. My privacy and attention are still being stolen from me, and I’m still the losing party.

The Decentralized Future

Out of curiosity, and a desire to find an alternative for microblogging, I made a Mastodon account. When I opened it, I was greeted with their privacy policy. It was less than 1500 words and no higher than a fifth grade reading level. Simple, clear, and understandable for the carbon brain, even a carbon brain without legal training. I was shocked because, in comparison, on Twitter you cannot even count the amount of words because you have to navigate through hyperlinks within hyperlinks through every lengthy section. Instagram tells the same lengthy story, but easier to navigate and with stale animated videos. I was far more comfortable with the, mostly transparent, simplicity of Mastrodon’s privacy policy. However, the policy notes information will be shared with “trusted third parties” without elaboration on who those parties may be. Even if not being sold, I would still be on display to parties I was unfamiliar with; my data traded even if it’s not being bought and sold. The future of sustainable social media, if such a thing can exist, is fully decentralized through the use of Freedom Boxes and other personalized servers. By cutting out the middleman of social media companies, we remove the commodification of our attention and protect our privacy. Under capitalism, we can never rely on these corporations to seriously consider changing their business model to favor humanity because that will drastically harm its bottom line.

Privacy Competent

I have tried to encourage other peers to join me, but it feels like I’m shouting into the void. My partner deleted Twitter, but has sunk into the trap of YouTube? reels. My best friend deleted Twitter… for maybe a month. And I cannot say I’ve done any better, I still catch myself doom-scrolling on Instagram as it predicts I’ll go wedding shopping in the next year and notices I've started a new Dungeon and Dragons campaign because they have never stopped watching me. And they will continue to watch me unless I leave. The first step was awareness, but now the goal is to be privacy competent. I plan to spend this winter break, with the help of my younger brother, converting awareness into action. His silicon brain is far more developed than mine, and he’s generally opposed to social media. Between the two of us, we should be able to get a server up and running. At the very least, I’ll be developing my internet and computer competency and on the right path. I entered law school partially because I did not want to learn how to code, and I see it now for how dreadfully na´ve that sentiment was. I knew refusing to learn more about computers in high school and undergrad was a dumb choice, but at the time I could not grasp just how crucial these skills are. I need to code, I need to understand computers, and I need to take control of my privacy in order to experience freedom.

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Webs Webs

r2 - 15 Dec 2023 - 21:15:25 - ReeceWalter
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