Social media and Edward Snowden: evaluating societal perceptions (and realities) of privacy

Rebecca Kennedy is a first-year student at Humber College and an advocate for human and civil rights, net neutrality and creating a better human experience.

There is a dismissive mentality widely accepted in our society: “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide.” This adage has been primarily used in the context of civil rights – most commonly, internet privacy rights – and largely contributes to a damaging culture that systemically endangers our online freedoms. Several individuals have made a concerted effort to shed light on the abuses within this culture and our own governments, including National Security Agency (NSA) whistleblower Edward Snowden and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, but until we harness our power as a collective community, we will continue to be subjected to unjust surveillance and scrutiny.

Our definition of privacy has changed with the emergence of new technologies.

When it comes to the accessibility and dissemination of personal material, the blame game extends beyond social circles. In 2010, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg was quoted as saying that privacy was no longer a “social norm.” Whether or not Zuckerberg still believes this to be true is unknown, as he has since contradicted the remark by buying up over $100 million worth of property surrounding his home in Hawaii for – you guessed it – privacy.

The duplicitous nature of Facebook’s business practices, unlike Zuckerberg’s personal beliefs, remains a constant. The website has come under fire since its inception in 2004 for allegations of privacy extortion through the removal of universal privacy controls, spyware in its Messenger app, royalty-free use of user-generated content, and so on. The website’s policies have undergone a dramatic shift over the past five years, and through creative brand repositioning, it has managed to convince many users that it can be trusted.

However, the fact that its founder and CEO, arguably one of the most powerful and influential innovators on the internet, does – or at one point did – view user privacy as irrelevant should be enough to draw more than empty concern from those who drive traffic to his website and pad his wallet. After all, it is this blasé attitude toward our fundamental right to privacy that leads to trouble. Refusing to stand up to questionable terms of service and unfair legislature is a remarkable loss for us, and chips away at the groundbreaking work established by revolutionaries like Edward Snowden.

Beginning in 2013, Snowden, a computer professional formerly contracted to work for the NSA, leaked classified documents that detailed invasive, unconstitutional surveillance programs. One program, known as PRISM, allowed the United States government access to the servers of several websites and applications, including Facebook, Skype, YouTube, Google and Yahoo. Government employees were also noted to have monitored customer records from the three biggest phone providers in the U.S. – Verizon, AT&T and Sprint – as well as social media activity, bank codes, transportation databases, voter registration logs and GPS locators to create profiles on citizens. (Note: Canadians are protected against “unlawful search or seizure” under section eight of The Charter of Rights and Freedoms. To override this, authorities must have probable cause to conduct a search or seizure without a court-issued warrant. Whether or not this procedure is being respected by our government is unknown.)

With the help of journalist Glenn Greenwald and documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, news of the leak made headlines around the world, and sparked international debate about privacy law and the reach of government. The trio’s initial meetings in Hong Kong were recorded for Citizenfour, a documentary film that explored the injustices exposed by the document leak and the motivation behind Snowden’s self-sacrifice in the name of information freedom. The film has gone on to win a number of accolades, including this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald talk in a still from "Citizenfour".
Snowden and Greenwald talk in a still from “Citizenfour”. (Photo: AP)

You might be asking yourself: “What does Snowden have to do with me?” And the answer is this: everything.

Snowden’s work is still creating ripples in political circles, but it has yet to be reflected in mainstream internet culture. Every day, millions of people use their smart phones to pay for their Starbucks order, complete online banking transactions and post geotagged photos of themselves on Instagram – all without a care as to who can access their personal information. Everything that we do online leaves an imprint, and using an aggregate of the metadata we produce in the normalized broadcasting of our whereabouts and activities, those with access to this information can generate profiles on each and every one of us to predict our past and future movements. Scary, isn’t it?

As social networking sites continue to utilize controversial privacy policies and governments operate with limited oversight, unlawfully surveilling and collecting our personal data, we must fight to preserve our liberties online or risk losing them entirely.

What does privacy on the internet mean to you? Have policies like Facebook’s changed the way you interact with others? How do you protect yourself from security breaches?


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