Data invasion

Julia Angwin's journey to the depths of data

Recently, a friend sent me an email with the subject, “Twitter targeted me with this ad.” The body of his email said, simply, “I hate technology,” then showed a pasted screenshot of a promoted tweet from a Muslim dating service. My friend has an ethnic name, but he doesn’t tweet about religion. Still, some data-driven algorithm, using overly generalized or just plain incorrect information about my friend, decided that the dating service tweet was reaching its target audience by targeting him.

If there is indeed false data about my friend archived online, it may be impossible to access and correct it, Julia Angwin discovers in her informative, conversational new book, Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security, and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance (Times Books, February 25). Angwin, a former Wall Street Journal and current ProPublica senior reporter, studied more than 200 commercial data brokers, of which she was sure there were more. These Web-based companies collect personal information to sell or to advertise against. And only about 15 percent of them let her see her own data—sometimes only after entering even more information to gain access. After contacting 23 sites, she received her data from 13 of them. The rest of the brokers were inaccessible to the people whose information they stored and sold.

The mission to inventory her data from commercial collectors was just one futile quest of many in Dragnet Nation, in which Angwin, whose previous book was about the rise of MySpace, ushers readers through her efforts to opt out of the pervasive tracking and surveillance that companies and the federal government engage in to quantify every last bit of our lives. “I would attempt to avoid being monitored during everyday activities such as reading and shopping,” she writes.

I would obscure my location—at home and while out and about. I would seal my emails and texts with the digital equivalent of hot wax . . . I would try to find a way to protect my kids from building a digital trail that would haunt them later in their lives.

Angwin has been reporting on privacy and technology for several years, and she describes her evassive efforts as an attempt to identify alternatives to a society—our society—where people’s data can be scooped up en masse and then used against them. Within the industry, journalists are already paying attention to the potential dangers of data collection, since the Obama administration has made a habit of treating intelligence reporting as a crime. But Angwin builds a compelling case that, even for the broader public, the post-9/11 acceptance of foregoing privacy for safety was a bad and unnecessary trade—that “some research suggests that collecting vast amounts of data simply can’t predict rare events like terrorism,” but it will turn common connections into red flags. Just using encrypted online tools can mark a person as someone the government should scrutinize.

To evade the digital dragnets, Angwin does a host of research on the best apps and strategies for keeping all her information encrypted or untrackable. She finds that most of these services have significant drawbacks. She quits using Google search, which, she notes, stores users’ entire search history, mining it to display customized Gmail ads. But when using DuckDuckGo, a search engine with a zero-retention policy, Angwin couldn’t depend on her Google databank to help guide her searches; she had to learn a new search language. Encryption email, browser, and chat programs are slow and unwieldy, and they’re mostly run as techie passion projects prone to closing from lack of funding or, in the case of Lavabit, to prevent the government from subpoenaing Edward Snowden’s emails. Using a fake name online made her uncomfortable. Even the simplest, cheapest privacy fix Angwin used—preventing her cellphone from being tracked by wrapping it in aluminum foil—was a tall order to maintain, since the foil quickly crumbled. And with two young children, being unreachable throughout the day was untenable.

Angwin takes short detours from her memoir of sorts to interview various encryption acolytes and program creators and provide an overview history of surveillance, to drill home the stunning amounts of data collected on Americans in the course of a normal day. The third-person reporting adds voices and perspectives to her tale that keep Dragnet Nation from becoming a dry how-to.

Her quest to remove herself from the digital bullseye meets with mixed success, at best: Angwin finds it impossible to fully disconnect from data dragnets. But her travails educate her (and her readers) about all the ways privacy-minded developers are working to develop anti-surveillance tools, and this forms a helpful guide for readers seeking non-jargony information on minimizing their digital footprints.

It will come as no surprise to many teenagers that one method Angwin used to protect her data was a fake online persona—though her discomfort with entering “Ida Tarbell” on digital forms might puzzle them.

In fact, Angwin might find useful lessons in the ways teens protect their information online. For her new book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens (Yale University Press, February 25), danah boyd (she writes her name without capitalization), a compellingly observant researcher, spent seven years interviewing teens around the country about their online lives. The result is a work that, despite periodic dives into academic jargon, makes a compelling case that, rather than leveling the playing field with widespread access to information, the rise of the internet has led to the replication of real life, online.

From many teens’ perspective, the surveillance threat online comes from snooping adults rather than companies or the government. And since, boyd argues, teens use social media as a digital version of meeting friends at the mall in an era when adolescents’ mobility is circumscribed and curtailed by overprotective adults, it behooves them to find ways to keep their public missives on Facebook and Twitter incomprehensible to unintended, grown-up audiences. One teenage girl boyd interviews deactivated her Facebook profile every time she logged out to prevent adults from searching for it. Others fill in false information, a la Angwin, lying about their name, location, age, and income on social media profiles, as boyd observes:

A casual viewer scanning Facebook might conclude that an extraordinary number of teens are in same-sex relationships because so many have chosen to list their best friend as the person they are “In a Relationship” with . . . . Searching for social media users in Afghanistan or Zimbabwe offers an additional window into teen life, as many teens select the top or bottom choice in the pull-down menu when they indicate their location.

Teens boyd interviews felt that “it was ridiculous for sites to demand this information,” she writes. Indeed, as Zadie Smith noted in the New York Review of Books in 2010, Facebook’s profile questions still reflect its origins as the creation of a male college sophomore, concerned with the likes of other people’s relationship statuses and favorite movies. But the “it’s ridiculous” sentiment is also a savvy assessment of sites that purport to be in the business of connecting people while actually being in the business of monetizing the data users share for free.

That level of digital sophistication is hardly inherent in all teens simply by virtue of growing up in a networked society, though. As boyd shows, there is an internet literacy gap that largely breaks down along race and class lines, stemming in part from the fact that teens mostly use social media to interact with friends and connections they already have. That is, rather than the Web having a democratizing effect, which early evangelists espoused as inevitable, the internet recreates real-life inequalities in the digital space:

Social media does not radically rework teens’ social networks. As a result, technology does not radically reconfigure inequality. The transformative potential of the internet to restructure social networks in order to reduce structural inequality rests heavily on people’s ability to leverage it to make new connections. This is not how youth use social media.

This holds true, from the divisions in social media tools teens choose to use—when Facebook rose to prominence, boyd writes, its early adopters were whiter, more affluent teens, while lower-income teenagers of color largely stuck with MySpace—to a broader lack of sophistication about how to find the best information. This inequality won’t diminish without the help of adults, boyd says, who need to stop assuming all teenagers are “digital natives,” a mistaken belief that obscures a persistent need for digital education and that “end[s] up reproducing digital inequality because more privileged youth often have more opportunities to develop these skills outside the classroom.”

In a country where 22 percent of children are living below the poverty line, failure to address this competency gap means that more than 16 million youths may grow up not only without the tools to pull themselves into the middle class, but also without the framework to analyze, and make decisions about, the dragnet nation that Angwin describes. And in the post-9/11, Google Glass world, where the term “virtual reality” is increasingly redundant, being unaware of what we share, and who can scoop up and access that missive, means ignorance of who has the power to use our own information against us.

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Kira Goldenberg was an associate editor at CJR from 2012-2015. Follow her on Twitter at @kiragoldenberg.