Words by Colette Duong
“The internet, for example, is a thing that we think about in a very mystifying way. It’s this thing that nobody can quite describe that seems like it’s nowhere but everywhere at the same time.” (Paglen 2016)
Between the previous weeks of group collaboration and recurring mind-map development, there has been a collective recognition that each of these emergent issues manifest as dense and ambiguous areas to research. Attempts to discern a problem such as online privacy have proved challenging, and identifying potential solutions testified even more so.
Defining the Problem
Reflecting on the Week 6 brainstorming session, a useful system of eliciting ideas began from outlining the problem space using five basic questions to form a ‘problem statement’ (a concise testimony to frame and guide our design response). However, I still found that my answers revealed a vague outline of the problem rather than extracting critical areas of enquiry.
Who does the problem affect?
The issue directly targets users of online interfaces (which almost means everyone who uses a piece of technology as basic information is now typically registered on web-based systems). Noticing the demographic that grew in the Internet Generation, the problem may be further directed at users who are oblivious to the issue and are being tracked, or at those who are aware yet continue to engage in indiscreet practices which subject them to potential exploitation. The problem also affects the larger bodies and organisations who possess the power to manage these issues e.g. national security and the government, who enforce laws.
What are the boundaries of the problem?
As a moral issue, the plight of the controversy lies within the contemporary evaluation of public versus private things. What defines the issue includes such government regulations, data retention schemes, underlying motives of organisations, privacy policies, terms and conditions, and the lack of restriction on the Internet as a ‘moral-free zone’. Symptoms like lack of awareness and collective indifference also hinder the progression of the problem solution.
When does the problem occur?
Whenever someone is using online technology, their data history may be transmitted to hosts who may gain ownership or profit from the user’s information. The problem is when this occurs unethically, therefore compromising an individual’s right to privacy.
Where does the problem occur?
The controversy subsists where data is stored and managed, and with those who have access to it (granted or not). The web exists in/as boundless territory, and technological interfaces (e.g. mobiles, computers that can retain data) act as instruments to the issue.
Why is the problem important?
It is easy to dismiss the problem as the transaction for using a particular service is deemed worth the price of personal data. But devaluing an individual’s privacy is unfair when governments and organisations can wrongly manipulate information that they are privy to. It is important to acknowledge the issue of online privacy as society advances into an age where technology seamlessly integrates into all human activity; where data will be more closely monitored, constant and sensitive than it already is.
- The lack of physical consequences/interventions when committing cyber-crimes have desensitised users who commit them.
- Users believe that the tradeoff of convenience and connectivity is worth the cost of their privacy, as they already lack of control over their distribution of data.
- Users are unaware of the degree that they are being monitored and tracked online, where their data goes and how it is used by organisations.
- As an intangible space, it is difficult to manage laws and regulations on the web, and therefore challenging to protect its users.
- There is a mass amount of indifference towards the issue because users are detached from their online activity or ‘personas’.
Potential Design Responses
- A data visualisation showing the relationship between how different social media sites present themselves (through their terms and privacy/security pages). This can include various forms of exploration including a case study on contradictory motivations, how their privacy policies have changed throughout the years, or what these sites can own from an individual based on user agreements.
- A data visualisation, similar to the previous idea except focusing on the terms and conditions or privacy policies of different illegal streaming and torrenting sites to enlighten users about potential circumstances of this behaviour.
- A design service/generative system which logs a user’s daily online activity with page trackers, to reveal a ‘map’ (data visualisation) of where their data has reached.
- A generative system showcasing tweets or posts related to the privacy issue (i.e. observing people complain about social media on social media), to make the audience more wary of what they might post.
- A design service that keeps track of what a user signs up for (i.e. locating sign up emails and their associated accounts) so they are reminded of where their personal information is being stored. Perhaps they can be notified when they have not logged into a particular site in a while, so they can delete their account if they wanted to.
A design service/generative system which logs a user’s daily online activity with page trackers, to reveal a ‘map’ (data visualisation) of where their data has reached.
My design response is driven by the perspectives of the target audience, who are online users in the 18-24 age category. The motivation is to inform users of the importance of the issue, generating dialogue and garnering reflection on their personal behaviours. As the online privacy and data surveillance issue is innately convoluted, it is imperative that these designs adhere to a simple structure; unpacking the obscurity of the problem into digestible forms of information, yet remaining interesting enough so that users can interrogate their reliance on technology.
Responding to my various problem statements, my chosen design approach introduces a service or generative system that would actively record a user’s online history with the amount of trackers they had from each page visit. This could lead them to a weekly map, visualising where these trackers are located to indicate where most of them are and how far their data travels. Thus, constructing a personal, reflective account to make the user aware of the issue as this information would otherwise be invisible to them.
Chapman, C. ‘The Surveillance Artist Turning Landscape Photography Inside Out’, The Creators Project, <http://thecreatorsproject.vice.com/blog/trevor-paglen-landscape-photography-machine-vision>.