The past couple of weeks saw another infamous hack in a series of hacking attacks on famous tech companies such as Apple, Sony and others. Except, this time it was a dating site called Ashley Madison developed for married people to cheat on their spouses.
A group that identified itself as ‘Impact team’ hacked the website and uploaded all kinds of personal information (a lot of it probably pseudonyms and false addresses) to reveal that even after users paid to delete their profiles, their profiles were never really deleted.
Once confirmed as legitimate, hundreds of government, military and potentially famous public figures are currently vulnerable to emotional trauma, exposure and public shaming and worse – families breaking. To rewind a little, the Apple Cloud hack, also known as “fappenning” on the interwebs, resulted in nude photographs of celebrities being leaked online.
With every such hack, there is a backlash calling for more secure technological systems and stricter international laws around privacy and data protection. However, what often gets missed in the narrative of data and its governance is the intimate life of information, the interwoven understandings of trust and ethics within online exchanges.
In a world where absolutely anything from online shopping to browsing for products or information to expressing a passing opinion to something more intimate such as sending a candid, risque picture – all feed into our “data trails” or our footprints online, how do we rethink ethics, boundaries and etiquette in the context of digital natives?
Data trails are not only created for those who tweet their every thought and check-in at every restaurant. In the age of Big Data, contextual information – being tagged or mentioned in someone’s posts, being searched for, simply taking a picture from your phone that automatically syncs to the cloud or even the mere time and place of accessing websites create trails, some more embarrassing than the others for each one of us. This also gives rise to a constant anxiety of the private being made public at any moment, not only because systems are less secure but because of individuals, human actors who actively exploit those vulnerabilities in a bid to make the private public.
In recent years, EU has enforced the ‘Right to be Forgotten’, a legislation under which individuals can petition Google to remove search entries that might cause them emotional, reputation or financial loss.
This ruling has been widely criticised because it creates holes in public memory by removing the index to find information which can be abused by rich and powerful individuals to remove anything that goes against them.
Again, coming back to regulating data trails, do we want information that forms both our public and private personas online to vanish on demand or do we instead want to develop new means of dealing with intensely rich public memory? Do we make our data forget or do we learn to be forgiving about data?
Technology theorist Langdon Winner once famously asked “Do artifacts have politics?” implying that systems are designed in ways that exclude some and include some. Systems give us affordances and limitations. In that sense they embody and reproduce certain power relations between their users. So, one could argue that the thrill of Snapchat is precisely that it allows you to share risque pictures without the fear of posterity. However, I want to bring back the discussion to the role of people, who as users are central to technologies like Facebook, Snapchat and Ashley Madison to suggest that we need a new, expanded definition of digital literacy. How do we define digital literacy when our current snap chatting millennial may tomorrow be the next political leader?
Digital literacy, then, cannot simply mean access to the internet or knowing how to use these platforms. It cannot simply be imagined as a campaign to get those outside of the fold of the Internet to participate online. Digital literacy must then extend to every growing millennial in order to make them aware about the social and intimate life of Big Data (densely connected and contextual), to make tangible and understandable the importance of encryption and data privacy, but most importantly, to cultivate a protocol, an ethical (and perhaps a more forgiving) system of relating to one another in the post Ashley Madison moment, and to inculcate best practices of information-sharing that promote trust and openness without risking exposure and shaming.
– The author is a PhD student at University of California, Irvine. She studies digital labour platforms and tweets @tetisheri