You are what you tweet

Campus club sparks privacy discussion, calls for advocates

Jessica Klymchuk, News Editor Ω

TRU is working on developing guidelines for social media that will apply to all users associated with the university. Jessica Klymchuk/The Omega

TRU is working on developing guidelines for social media that will apply to all users associated with the university. Image coutesy Hyrax Films. 

The advantage of growing up 30 years ago might be that all the ridiculous stuff you did in your 20s predated the Internet. The generation that grew up online knows no such time, and for many the excitement of using digital social interaction hit at their most vulnerable age. Others were more skeptical.

But just how much your digital footprint says about you would surprise even the most careful online user. Everything you’ve ever clicked on, watched, liked, searched and deleted is documented, and it doesn’t go away.

So, is privacy dead?

The TRUSU Human Rights Club showed Terms and Conditions May Apply on Oct. 31 to stimulate a discussion on privacy issues. In its review of the film, the Globe and Mail said it’s “not just a documentary about Internet privacy, but a non-fiction horror flick for anyone who blindly agrees to user licensing agreements online (a.k.a. everyone).”

The film documents the current digital environment in which your cell service provider records every swipe, Google tracks every search, Facebook defaults are entirely public, people are being searched in airports for benign tweets and high school students are being questioned by the Secret Service over innocent status updates. It outlines the relationships law enforcement has with these companies, one that has allowed them to stop protests before they’ve even happened, sometimes based on instant messaging.

When Google first released its terms and conditions, they insisted people’s Internet activity was just attributed to a number. Since then, they’ve discovered that anonymity isn’t profitable, according to director Cullen Hoback, and that’s where the terms and conditions come into play.

TRU privacy law professor David Hughes led a discussion including about 30 students, beginning with the question: is privacy dead?

“It’s easy to say it’s dead because it’s always been a relative term,” he said, adding that privacy isn’t spelled out in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, so how can we go about protecting it?

Students suggested that privacy is thought of in a more tangible way. When someone looks through your window, you feel like your privacy is being invaded. When someone is mining your online data, you don’t know the difference.

Hughes said Canadian law is based on the idea that it’s better for 99 guilty people to go free than one innocent person be charged, but these techniques could threaten that. Presumption of innocence begins to wane.

“Canada is often looked at being a leader in privacy, but I’m skeptical of that,” he said.

It also poses the question: what else can such data be used for? It was discussed whether or not it will be used to take down drug lords next. In that case, privacy could become less defined and less protected when safety is at stake.

“The primary motive is to stop terrorism, but there are, in large part, commercial interests driving it,” Hughes said.

This “happy coincidence” is a result of companies like Facebook creating something that wasn’t intended to be used to spy on citizens, but citizens willingly putting forth information has given it other advantages.  Hughes said the same analytics that target advertising could tell the government that perhaps you are a terrorist.

Hughes questioned whether or not people will adapt to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s idea of an open world. Will people continue to be concerned about what’s online, or eventually move on and adapt?

“From my point of view I think there is opportunity to create new and better laws to regulate this,” he said.

Hughes encouraged all the students to share what they saw in Terms and Conditions May Apply and that everyone should be advocating for legislation that will promote online privacy.