Yesterday afternoon, this reporter was scrambling to finish reporting a forward-looking story about how banks are exploring the possibility of using social media data to judge loan and credit applicants. My editor wanted a quote from a privacy advocate, so I immediately thought of Eben “Spying for Free” Moglen, a militant digital privacy advocate, founder of the uber-secure personal server FreedomBox, and the inspiration for the decentralized social network Diaspora. In hindsight, perhaps I should have just called Cory Doctorow.
Mr. Moglen, a law professor at Columbia University, was not particularly interested in talking about banks using social media to spy on their customers.
Everyone who uses Facebook, Twitter and the like shares the blame for the serious and ongoing global erosion of privacy enabled by the internet, he said. Banks aren’t the problem, he said; the users tempting banks with their Twitter and Facebook postings are the problem.
As are reporters who write about privacy issues with social media without first closing their Facebook accounts.
(I call Mr. Moglen’s office at the end of the day and explain what I’m working on. Mr. Moglen starts out sounding like a patronizing but ultimately kind-hearted professor. He reminds me of my patronizing but ultimately kind-hearted uncle, who works in IT. Emphasis mine)
Me: I’m looking for… like, whether this is a privacy issue?
Mr. Moglen: I don’t understand what that means.
The data is a privacy issue because we have an enormous ecological disaster created by badly-designed social media now being used by people to control and exploit human beings in all sorts of ways.
That’s the consequence of social media structures which encourage people to share using centralized databases, and everything they share is held by someone who is no friend of theirs who also runs the servers and collects the logs which contain all the information about who accesses what, the consequences of which is that we are creating systems of comprehensive surveillance in which a billion people are involved and those people’s lives are being lived under a kind of scrutiny which no secret police service is the 20th century could ever have aspired to achieve. And all of that data is being collected and sold by people whose goal it is to make a profit selling the ability to control human beings by knowing more about themselves than they know. Okay? That’s true of all this information all the time everywhere. The thing you’re working on is simply one of 100,000 implications of that disaster.
Mr. Moglen: Okay, so have you closed your Facebook account and stopped using Twitter?
Me: Have… I?
Mr. Moglen: Yes, you!
Me: No, I can’t!
Mr. Moglen: (getting agitated) Of course you can, if you don’t want to be in a situation in which you are more heavily surveilled than the KGB or Stasi or Securitate or any other secret police ever surveilled anybody (indistinguishable) and what do you mean you ‘can’t'? I can, how come you can’t?
Me: Well, everyone else is using it.
Mr. Moglen: That’s not true. And besides, if everybody else is using them then I couldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I’m not using them. You’re quite wrong.
Moglen: Right. But you’re not going to do anything about that. So you’re using them and every time you tag anything or respond to anything or link to anything, you’re informing on your friends. You’re part of the problem, you’re not part of the answer. Why are you calling up to ask me about the problem you’re creating?
Me: Well, I was hoping you might be able to help me think about this particular—
Mr. Moglen: I have helped you. And you have refused to help me back. I’ve told you this is an ecological problem created by people doing a silly thing.
Me: I think the problem is, people have trouble understanding why, like what the real dangers are—
Mr. Moglen: But that’s not the problem! You know what the problem is. The problem is, even though you know what the problem is you’re continuing to make it worse.
Me: It just doesn’t seem like the consequences are that bad.
Mr. Moglen: The problem isn’t people who don’t know! The problem is people like you who do know and go on making it worse. Right?
Me: Well I think for me personally—
Mr. Moglen: Well, now you know. So you should stop now. And not only should you stop, you should get the people around you to stop. If you get the people around you to stop, they’ll get the people around them to stop and we’ll fix the problem. It’s like littering. Why are you calling me up to ask me about the social consequences of your littering without stopping doing it? And then when you tell me a fatuous thing like you ‘can’t,’ it’s perfectly clear that whatever you do here, it won’t be civic journalism because it won’t result in a better world.
Me: Uh, okay. I hear what you’re saying.
Mr. Moglen: No, you don’t actually. You just want to claim you hear what I’m saying.
Me: Well just for me personally right now, the utility seems to—
Mr. Moglen: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no! You see that’s not true. You injure other people today also using social media. You’ve informed on them. You’ve created more records about them. You’ve added to the problems not of yourself but of other people. If it were as simple as just you’re only hurting yourself I wouldn’t bother pointing it out to you. See, that’s the difference, okay? The reason that this all works is that even when you know you’re hurting other people, you’re too selfish to stop. And there are hundreds of millions of people like you. That’s why it works.
Me: What’s the damage?
Mr. Moglen: Well you called me, you know what the problem is. People lost their homes. People lose their money. People lose their freedom. (??? -ed.)
You know because you saw it, because you’re following this, that Facebook now acknowledges what we said for a long time and they didnt acknowledge, that every single photograph uploaded to Facebook is put through facial recognition software they call PhotoDNA which is used to find people for whom any law enforcement agency in the world is looking. You understand? So every time you upload a photograph to Facebook or put one on Twitter for that matter you are now ratting out anybody in that frame to any police agency in the world that’s looking for them. Some police agencies in the world are evil. That’s a pretty serious thing you’ve just done. But you do it all the time. And when I asked you to stop you tell me you can’t, which is an antisocial thing to say.
Me: That wasn’t a totally serious answer.
Mr. Moglen: Of course it was a totally serious answer. It’s the truth. You’re not going to do anything about fixing this problem. You’re going to claim that it’s just something you’re reporting and then you’re going to go right back to making it worse.
And if you ever call me up again to ask me about yet another one of these things you’ll still be making it worse, because although you can report the problem you can’t take social responsibility for your part in causing the problem.
That’s why I tell you it’s like littering. You should stop doing it before you write in the newspaper that there’s too much garbage on the street.
Me: Okay. Well thanks for your help. I appreciate it.
Mr. Moglen: No it wasn’t helpful, it was hurtful because I told you the story you’re working on is the story of your own anti-social behavior and that of people like you. It’s not helpful.
What you want to know is that somewhere there’s a regulator who might stop the bank. But you don’t want to hear that the regulator we really need to call upon is you, yourself. Right? You don’t want to write that in the newspaper. I guarantee you whatever story you file will treat this as a problem caused by everyone except the readers at The Observer and that will be false. The problem is caused by people who would like a little help spying on their friends. And in a genteel way, that’s what the social media offers. They get to surveil other people. In return for a little bit of the product, they assist the growth of these immense commercial spying operations. The commercial spying operations are used to empower people who have lots to get more from people who have less. They lead to a more unequal society. More unequal in economic terms and more unequal in political terms. The users, as with most stuff that’s dangerous that’s sold to people, the users are the victims and even the stuff you write which purports to be critical will do everything except telling people the central fact, which is they have to stop using.
Me: I think that’s totally relevant and will definitely put it in. (N.B.: In the end, I did not put this in the story for several reasons, not the least of it was the fact that it was late and over word limit.)
Mr. Moglen: Well, we’ll see what gets past your editor. That much there’s a test for. I can see what The Observer publishes. Now, assuming all that, and assuming you’re actually going to give even an instant’s consideration to your own part in creating this ecological nightmare, what else do you want to know?
(At this point, Mr. Moglen seemed genuinely amenable to answering my questions. However, this reporter was a little shook, to be honest.)
Me: Honestly, that’s good. That covers it.
Mr. Moglen: Take care.
Me: Thanks a lot.