Facts So Romantic

Who Owns Your Identity?

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Portrait of the Artist's Mother, by Juan Gris

When the digital media pioneer and visionary Jaron Lanier signs his new book, Who Owns The Future?, he circles the “Who” and draws an arrow to the reader’s name, achieving a visual haiku of his message: Each of us, by name, generates a great amount of profit for the Internet’s corporations as they use our personal information for targeted advertising or sell it to third-parties for future use. He wants to know what are we going to do about it.

“Few people realize the degree to which they are being tracked and spied upon in order that this new form of currency can be created,” Lanier says.

That currency is our private lives.

In his May 3rd, 2013, talk at Brooklyn’s Powerhouse Arena, Lanier pointed out that social networking sites (such as Twitter, Facebook, Google, and LinkedIn) have not only changed the way we socialize and exchange ideas, they have also become information machines. Many perceive that these companies have merely given us new, free ways to stay in touch with friends or foster professional connectivity, but the reality is that this convenience comes with enormous costs: personal data collection. Lanier and others think the rapid shift to technological information consolidation and analysis of citizen identities, combined with the massive economic wealth of the companies, has big implications for individual privacy, and could also significantly influence the future of our political system.

In a recent research project exploring the implications of this new reality on individuals, Alessandro Acquisti, a professor who does research on economics of privacy at Carnegie Mellon, showed how easy it is for digital technology to break through the walls around our personal lives. Using only an unknown person’s photograph, publicly available face recognition software (nowhere as sophisticated as Facebook, et al.), distributed computing, and information from social network sites, he could easily procure information including Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers, and credit and debit card numbers—more than enough to commit identity theft. Our online personas and offline lives have merged, in what Acquisti says will soon be a seamless “augmented reality.”

In his latest study, Silent Listeners: The Evolution of Privacy and Disclosure on Facebook, Acquisti and fellow authors found that more people than ever do everything they can online to keep their personal information private. However, the level of personal information disclosure has continued to rise due to strategic probing of our online social networks. Analysis of information about ourselves and our personal relationships allows social media companies to predict the behavior of our friends in the real world, placing us into categories that they, in turn, can use for profit. Additionally, Acquisti found an increase in the numbers of what he calls the “silent listeners”—the social media companies themselves and third-party apps. Privacy settings and information security practices, meant to protect us from a breach in the system, mean little when it’s the social media companies themselves looking in and collecting data.

While the most obvious risk of this breach in personal security is losing our money to thieves, there is other private information that is being taken from us as well.

On May 19th, Lesley Stahl, reporting on the use of facial recognition programs for 60 Minutes, interviewed Joseph Atick, a pioneer of the technology. He called commerce’s surveillance use of facial recognition to build data banks of faceprints (unique, digital representations’ of peoples visages) “a Monster,” saying, “Big Brother is no longer big government; Big Brother is big business.” There are no laws or restrictions on this kind of surveillance, and he believes its use in the United States should be regulated like it is in Europe, where a person’s consent is required to collect their faceprint. Atick said, “My identity, my faceprint, should be recognized as my property. My face is as important as my financial records, as my health records. It’s very private to me.”

Companies that want to learn more about us are now trying to gather information on our biological selves to correctly document our identities. Our face and its expressions are not only a window to our psychology, they are the result of our most important fundamental structure: our genome, the body’s hereditary blueprint. This defining information of human uniqueness is now highly sought-after information.

The individual has logical needs for privacy that goes along with indisputable rights of freedom of thought and speech. Yet, in a moment focused on group behavior (the hivemind, groupthink, mass collaboration, and flashmobs), respect for the concept of self-ownership of one’s individual identity has never been more important, or more threatened.

Technology is not always in sync with human values. Even though tapping ancient needs of social bonds has led to the success of social media, closely held understandings of personal identity and sovereignty is just as entrenched. Who owns your identity? Lanier reminds us that right now it is impossible not to be spied upon—and it’s not in our interest to adapt to this.


Gayil Nalls, Ph.D is an interdisciplinary artist, philosopher, and theorist. Her work investigates personal and collective sensory experiences, memory, and identity.


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