Is Nothing Sacred? Is Nothing Private?
At the end of my last post, I asked the question, “Is nothing sacred?”
Here are some responses to that question, via the world of Web 2.0:
- After a day of denial, Gawker acknowledges that it has been hacked and that the private data of its 1.3M users have been posted to an open site for downloading by others.Meaning?If you have a Gawker account, your password is available to anyone who visits the bit-torrent site. (If you’re the sort who re-uses a single password, Gawker encourages you to change your password everywhere you can.) The hack comes from a group self-identifying as “Gnosis” and claiming no affiliation with 4Chan’s anonymous–the group hard at work retaliating against those who withdrew their support from WikiLeaks (Amazon, PayPal, Visa, Mastercard). Gnosis goes on to explain that they targeted Gawker due to the online web journal’s arrogance:
“We considered what action we would take, and decided that the Gawkmedia ‘empire’ needs to be brought down a peg or two. Our group[']s mission? We don’t have one.”
- For a brief period, the story floats that the CIA is running what is known to insiders as a “honeypot” site to attract and then follow those hoping to read WikiLeaks’ cache of private cables from U.S. embassies worldwide. Well, actually, the story is that the CIA has been so clumsy in establishing the phony WikiLeaks mirror site that the geeks have been able to expose the fraud easily.
Turns out the exposure itself is a fraud. According to the original source of the viral story: “It was some guy’s joke or something. . . . There is no conspiracy here, and no reason to believe the CIA is setting up fake WikiLeaks mirrors (though, not a bad idea, amirite?).”
- Facebook finds itself contending with assaults on all versions of whatever one holds Sacred, nano-second by nano-second. As an example, a recent New York Times story describes what Facebook’s censors had to contend with during the run up to Spirit Day–a day for members of the LGBT community and their supporters to make their presence known.
Turns out, there are users only too happy to use the day for other purposes, including posting “antigay messages and threats of violence on a page inviting people to remember Tyler Clementi and other gay teenagers who have committed suicide . . . .”
Add to the images of Tyler Clementi circulating on the Web, this one:
lol its hot down here
One explanation for why the Clementi story caught the nation’s attention–and the six other teen suicides that same month did not–is the events preceding his leap into the Hudson seemed to tap into a shared sense of vulnerability in the age of technology: to wit, how would you feel if one of your sexual encounters had been secretly recorded and then broadcast for all to see on the Internet?
These are the received versions, snipped from the headlines, of what transpired after Clementi shut his dorm room door to meet in private with another man:
Rutgers freshman is presumed dead in suicide after roommate broadcast gay sexual encounter online/after video of sexual encounter/after secret broadcast of sex encounter.
It certainly sounds horrifically invasive, but what actually happened? Answering this will take some time because it requires considering the technical aspects of cyber-spying with a webcam and because it involves working through Clementi’s response to discovering his roommate had spied on him.
How did Clementi discover what his roommate was up to?
Remember Ravi’s first twitter post?
He posted this for all the world to see. Clementi could’ve found out that he’d been spied on just by checking Ravi’s twitter feed.
First post from cit2mo
September 21st, 7:22AM, cit2mo posts to the JustUsBoys.com discussion forum the news that he has discovered, as a result of reading his roommate’s Twitter feed, that he had been spied on previously.
Where does cit2mo go with this discovery?
It’s jarring how calm cit2mo appears to be in reporting this: the roommate “went into somebody else’s room and remotely turned on his webcam and saw me making out with a guy. given the angle of the webcam I can be confident that that was all he could have seen.” And he goes on to say, “it would be nice to get him in trouble but idk [I don't know] if I have enough to get him in trouble….he never saw anything pornographic….he never recorded anything…..”
The actual layout of a typical dorm room in Davidson Hall isn’t available currently: clicking on the “virtual tour” link on the Rutgers site yields “page not found.”
The housing site does report, however, that the average room in Davidson is 18 x12, that the dorm is for first-year students, and that this single story complex houses 340 students in all.
Generic Dorm Room
How could Clementi be so certain that Ravi had not seen anything “pornographic”?
Try to imagine placing an open laptop in the room above. There are only a few heights available to you: floor-level, on the bed, on the desk, on the dresser.
There is a wider range of angles available to you, given the freedom you have to point the camera in any direction and to move the laptop screen back from upright 30 degrees or so. But, once the camera angle is chosen, your choice can’t be altered: the webcam doesn’t swivel, rotate, or zoom; it just stares without comprehension, transmitting whatever falls within its field of vision.
The narrow reach of the stationary webcam
Clementi’s profile picture further illustrates the problem the webcam poses for the voyeur.
Move a foot or two to the left or right or down and you’re out of the picture. Move back and, as this image also shows, things shrink quickly and the focus blurs.
Rely on artificial lighting and things get worse:
These images aren’t meant to be anything other than suggestive–a way to illustrate what cit2mo himself actually knew, which is that a laptop placed on a desk or a dresser might catch something, but it wouldn’t catch much. And, in fact, he knows from reading his roommate’s tweet that all that was captured was him kissing his visitor.
Is this a violation of privacy? Without a doubt.
Well, it was “without a doubt” under the previous paradigm, but in the network-centric world? It’s not so clear.
cit2mo, an active citizen of the online world, with 78 posts to JustUsBoys fora and a status of “on the prowl,” isn’t exactly shocked by his roommate’s actions. Initially, the hassle of dealing with reporting the violation to the administration is what’s foremost in his mind–he’d probably end up having to move, not his roommate; he’d probably just end up with “somebody worse”; or nothing would happen at all and he’d just end up with his roommate mad at him.
“I mean aside from being an asshole from time to time, he’s a pretty decent roommate . . . .”
A pretty decent roommate?
Is cit2mo incredibly naive? Or does he know something we don’t know about the mores of his generation? Is his judgment to be trusted?
This is part of an ongoing meditation on the End of Privacy. While it can be read on its own, you might enjoy starting at the beginning, where I lay out the project of thinking about privacy in relation to examining information about Tyler Clementi that is openly available on the Web. This mediation starts here: The End of Privacy: A Case Study (Tyler Clementi and WikiLeaks). A summary of all sections of the meditation may be found here: Annotated Table of Contents for The End of Privacy: A Case Study.
To learn more about the hack of Gawker, visit: Gawker Appears to Have Been Hacked
Within 48 hours, a graph of the most popular passwords on the Gawker site is generated:
Story behind the story of the non-phony non-CIA mirror site: CIA’s Honeypot Wikileak Website
NYT story on Facebook Censors: Facebook Wrestles with Free Speech and Civility