Little Brother, a 2008 novel by Cory Doctorow, feels very much of its time in certain ways. Set in the Bay Area, it depicts a Tenderloin district still full of sex workers, punks, and immigrants, and depicts a Californian culture fixated on Japanese artistic and cultural production. The technology in the book is a blown-up version of predictive trends of 2008, reflecting concerns around facial recognition, school security, youth privacy, and safety from hackers in an age where more and more data was on the Internet.
But there’s another way the book feels dated. While Doctorow’s protagonist has a set of skills around data security that would put even the most prepared and well-educated adult in 2018 to shame, the threats he guards himself from mainly come from (an arm of) the state. Outside of the threats that Marcus faces from DHS and an associated team of intelligence agents, the Internet Marcus inhabits is a relatively free-form, anarchic space of forums, game threads, and competing small sites, not dominated by any one site or entity.
I can’t blame Doctorow for the ways this picture differs enormously from the way things are in 2018. Just after the Patriot Act, the idea that the government could collect citizen data with impunity horrified (rightfully) people everywhere, for a range of reasons. In 2018, however, the government is not the only one with the data–and certainly is not the primary actor putting our data to (publicly known) use. Rather, a collection of companies watch and use us to generate advertising dollars for themselves, and also employ our “free” hours as a mode of value production by collecting our data and using it to sell things to us. Now that cell phones are ubiquitous, most people in the U.S can be remotely tracked by their cell phone or service provider at any time. The government still may obtain this information from companies, and we should, like Marcus in Little Brother, be worried about that fact. But the companies are the ones that are doing something with it.
This week, as part of my participation in a class exercise on thinking about data security and collection of personal information by corporations, and how this might be relevant to teen patrons of libraries, I did an 8-day Data Detox. I used the toolkit supplied here : https://myshadow.org/detox .
Essentially, this process is about learning about your digital footprint, and what kinds of information about your life exists on the Internet. It’s also about what kinds of data Google and other companies collect through personal daily app use.
For many people, this kind of exploration of a digital self can come as a complete surprise. For others, it serves as a consciousness-raising wakeup call. I think all teens and parents should go through at least a few of the steps of the data detox together and talk about the implications of how we trust companies with our information.
Here are my reflections on my own Data Detox experience
o What did you learn doing the exercise?
At some level, I knew about the kind of data that Google and social media sites collected about me every day. I also knew that my phone tracked my location, and that information I had put on social media in high school and college was still accessible somewhere online, even if it was only via the WayBack machine. Over the years, I developed certain competencies, like knowing how to scrub pictures off of certain platforms or request that accounts or names be taken down, but I mostly accepted that my data was available to corporate entities and basically not private. I think Data Detox made me confront the level to which I am complacent and frequently fail to confront/deal with my data being sold and used to track me. The most surprising thing for me was that Google still had the data from every location my Android phone had been during the period I owned it–it had recorded the dining halls I ate at most, the exact walking routes I took to class all through undergrad, and the routes I took to protests in October 2014 (security culture meant that I kept my phone off for some of these protests, but Android knew I had gone there.) I know Apple now has that data for my current phone, too.
o Why is this important for you to do as a teen librarian?
If I’m an adult and complacently accept the way my data is used and sold by corporations, I will have no way to prompt teenagers to ask meaningful questions about the way their data is used or the way their social media presence has grown beyond their control. Teen librarians should make teenagers aware of how they can keep their online browsing and social media presence as secure as possible, since this is an increasing part of teens’ social lives and teens have a right to privacy and autonomy.
o How can you pass some of this information along to teens?
Promoting books which discuss issues of data security and sharing –such as Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, or Watched by Marina Budhos–are one way to engage teenagers in questions of security, human rights, and government access to personal data. M.T Anderson’s Feed delves into corporate panopticons that limit our imagination and ability to resist capitalist propaganda, and is also an important work. But programming should also prompt teenagers to practice using alternate sites and methods for internet engagement so they can practice controlling their own information.
o Based on doing this exercise, what other information regarding
data & privacy you think is necessary for teens?
I think that teenagers should understand the way that different social media sites advertise to them, know how to keep information secure from parents and school officials. I think we should talk about how data mining, gamification of social media apps, “influencers”, and product promotion on common apps used by children and teenagers results in a new kind of economy that exploits the natural productive work, social engagement, and creative effort of teens and channels it into cash for corporations–basically monetizing children and teens’ free time and putting every minute of people’s day into the service of capital. Teens should decide if that is how they want to engage with the world.
Teens should also be aware of their options if they are the targets of harassment, revenge porn, “doxxing”, or other forms of online abuse that may target their data. Teens should be aware of laws related to cyber-crimes, and be able to trace IP addresses for the purpose of being able to identify the source of online threats or trolling. Particularly for teenagers who are part of gaming communities, security around data and a clear understanding of what information they are giving to others and to companies will help them move through the world more safely.