Columbia professor warns of dangers of our online footprint, offers tools of 'resistance'
How often do we hear about our online data being mined but refuse to act?
“Every keystroke,” wrote Bernard E. Harcourt, “each mouse click, every touch of the screen…everything we do in our new digital age can be recorded, stored, monitored.” So begins Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, published today, a warning call about the alarming consequences of what Harcourt calls our “virtual transparency.”
Harcourt, director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought, draws from his background in law and political theory to understand the ways our online lives are monitored. The way we live today, according to Harcourt, with the constant Tweeting, Instagramming, emailing, and chatting, is leaving us exposed.
“We live in a society of exposure and exhibition,” Harcourt writes.
Perhaps the most troubling dimension of our current state of transparency, argues Harcourt, is the fact that we are not only aware of it, but complicit in it. “We live today in a new political and social condition…that is producing a dramatically new circulation of power in our society,” writes Harcourt. “And it does so with our full participation.” There is no one to blame but ourselves.
Harcourt worries about how easily we give up personal information. Much private personal data today can be gathered through Google searches, online shopping “likes,” and retweets. The information can be bought and sold through FB ads, and can be accessed by the FBI, the NSA. Through the PRISM program, the NSA can get ahold of data from Microsoft, Facebook, YouTube, Skype, and more, for $20 million a year—a paltry sum, given the richness of personal data.
Harcourt is not entirely unsympathetic. “The anticipation, the desire for something new and satisfying, that sensation we get when we receive a bit of good news in our email,” he writes, “how easily this distracts us from…digital surveillance, data mining, profiling, and monitoring.”
The “desire” Harcourt identifies is real. Sherry Turkle, psychologist and author of Reclaiming Conversation, noticed the same thing when studying our connection to digital devices. On the subject of digital multitasking (which can include chatting, FB messaging, Tweeting, etc.), Turkle said “Our brains are wired to send serotonin in as we add new tasks. We are wired to reward the behavior that actually reduces our ability to perform at our highest level.”
But the fight to disconnect, Harcourt argues, is difficult, and at times, leaving an online footprint is unavoidable. “Even when we are hesitant or ambivalent , it seems there is simply no other way to get things done in our new digital age.”
Harcourt’s description of our two “selves”—”the now permanent digital self, which we are etching into the virtual cloud with every click and tap, and our mortal analog selves, which seem by contrast to be fading like the color on a Polaroid instant photo”—is, perhaps, a bit extreme. Yet his point, that we are so easily marked, is critical. “In our digital frenzy…to ‘quantify’ ourselves,” writes Harcourt, “we are exposing ourselves.”
So what can we do?
Harcourt believes in digital “resistance.” “There is today a range of new weapons that we are using to challenge our virtual transparence and its pockets of obscurity,” he writes. Among these, he includes efforts to develop more secure devices, to better encrypt—he points to the the Electronic Frontier Foundation for information about fighting surveillance. Harcourt also lists Security in-a-Box for useful tools to protect privacy. Other tools he mentions are anonymous chat programs, like Ricochet. He highlights peaceful “data” protests, such as Accurate Resistance in Germany, protesting NSA surveillance.
But no matter which tools we use, Harcourt believes, we cannot remain passive.
“It is precisely our desires and passions that have enslaved us, exposed us, and ensnared us in this digital shell as hard as steel,” writes Harcourt, in his bleak conclusion. “Our digital cravings are matched only by the drive and ambition of those who are watching.”
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