Sacrificing Privacy to Pursue Power: The impact of modern reputation management on the rule of law

Jesse Hirsh

The paper was commissioned by the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada as part of the Insights on Privacy Speaker Series

December 2010

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this document are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Office of the Privacy Commissioner of Canada.

Related video: Insights on Privacy: Chris Soghoian and Jesse Hirsh


A new means of measuring social hierarchy is emerging that, unlike our current tools (that are based around credit status), have a far more comprehensive and nuanced means of assigning value to citizens and consumers.

By measuring social capital as a form of reputation management, new social media tools expand the realm of surveillance to include social activities and interests in addition to economic ones. And unlike economic measurements, social capital blurs the boundaries between the public and private sphere as our social activities usually exist in both simultaneously. New media allow us to share private activities with the public, while also participating in public events privately.

This phenomena is emerging and expanding so rapidly that it is both difficult to track and almost impossible for most citizens and consumers to understand.

The problem from a regulatory perspective has to do with the myth of consent that results from the implicit power imbalance that exists behind the veil of this otherwise exciting and empowering technology.

What is presented as a fair exchange is in fact a disproportionate understanding of the nature of the transaction. The gap between what each party comprehends as happening in the relationship is so substantial as to practically place them in different worlds.

This gap and imbalance exists in large part due to the impact of (real-time) analytics and the information, or rather intelligence, that is available on almost all consumers (when it comes to commercial relations) and citizens (when it comes to political and government relations).

The field of (real-time) analytics continues to be one of the fastest growing and most profitable part of the tech/media industry, and our ability to understand it is limited by the fact that many large enterprises have developed similar capabilities internally.

There are so many people engaged in this activity that there’s no real way to know how widespread or advanced it has become. We’re only getting glimpses, and they speak to a power that is unprecedented and growing.

It’s a power to know a subject better than they know themselves. Beyond psycho-analysis, this kind of profiling can over time allow properly trained professionals to understand the target in ways still being defined.

Narcissism almost becomes a requirement for effective reputation management as people struggle to see only a fraction of the data and intelligence that exists about them and that they sense is out there. Regularly searching for themselves via Google and other services to see what is being said, what is being stored. Perhaps an existential literacy is emerging that allows people to understand themselves via their data trail.

A potentially more disturbing question is what kind of an effect this is having on young children whose parents are uploading their entire lives to the web. From birth they are trained to smile for the camera and watch their image spread on the web. Parents reinforce this exposure by rewarding the children with the shared attention that comes from the shared media. Scale this up and the notion of privacy as a commodity implicitly becomes normalized as incentives and rewards are provided for the continued embrace of total transparency.

In pedagogy this is referred to as “What You Test Is What You Get” which recognizes the problem of teaching towards tests and exams as you narrow the students’ learning by having them focus on results rather than process driven-education.

In the world of social media, it manifests as a perpetual popularity contest where people receive rewards, whether cultural, economic, and political, for sharing more and more of their lives online. The merits of “over-sharing” are directly tied to emerging models of reputation management and upward social mobility.

This becomes dangerous when the culture produced from the exposure and measurement of social activity becomes zealous and dogmatic. When people punish others for protecting their privacy (as was the case of vigilantes in Germany egging the houses of people who opted out of Street View) and denounce organizations who defy perceived expectations (the culture of consumer complaining on social media) there is reason to fear that something larger and more destructive looms.

Taking a moment to employ both political satire and cultural analysis, there are some interesting parallels between the revolutionary movements of the 20th century and the social media revolution of the 21st.

If one were to take Google and Apple literally, both openly talk about their role in a revolution, a revolution in transparency that does explicitly involve the fall of modern governments. Further Google and Apple perceive themselves as being involved in “World War 3”, a conflict over the Internet itself, with the spoils being the global attention economy and its related informational infrastructure. This revolution is largely driven by “early adopters” who act as a kind of vanguard, or dictatorship of the proletariat, as they seize it upon themselves to embrace or reject any new technology that reinforces their world view. Supporting the vanguard is the myth of “Gen Y” which provides a kind of cultural revolution that threatens enterprises and institutions alike to change or face the consequences.

History, as scholars know, does tend to repeat itself and it’s important at the outset of the 21st century we understand how not to repeat the horrific mistakes of the 20th. The problem, however, is that we continue to misunderstand the political economy of Silicon Valley, and the global disruption their investments, technologies, and companies continue to have on the world. As the heart of the second world war’s technology engine, they have since created the capability for anyone to be their own central intelligence agency or bureau of investigation. The ever expanding amount of storage space and processing power, combined with increasingly accessible artificial intelligence allows pretty much anyone to gather intelligence by data mining. Naturally, everyone is doing just that.

Therefore it is important to understand that the attention economy is really the surveillance economy. The Internet has unleashed a wonderful world of new media entertainment and applications, most of which is designed to learn more about us and monitor as much as possible. Many users are themselves seduced by new tools that allow them to engage in surveillance, albeit in a small and fractional scale to what they are subject to in return.

Yet all of what we’ve seen so far pales to what is already happening on the new frontier of mobile. Once again the power relationship that exists is so imbalanced that the mobile user has no real understanding of how they can be tracked and profiled. As with the web, they have little grasp of all the identifying information that is available to monitor their movements and activities.

Ironically, while the explicit knowledge is not there, there is an implicit awareness that it exists. People are deeply distrustful of their mobile providers, and worry about their privacy, but have no real understanding of their alternatives or options. This is largely a result of the leadership void in our society on these issues and the fact that most ignore the available research. Research that shows young people in spite of their active embrace of social media, value and sometimes desperately want, privacy. Research that shows public surveillance doesn’t work as a deterrent, and that the arguments made for its further deployment are not based on evidence.

Further, our political leadership also intimately understand that the cost of political power is the sacrifice of privacy, while also recognizing it is a commodity that can be bought back once the wealth that comes with power is acquired.

Therefore these technologies of political control continue their wide deployment and use precisely because of their promise of political control. Questions as to their efficacy and legitimacy are never addressed but rather skirted via their expansion. Which in some cases is not the expansion of the camera installations themselves, but rather in the amount of people using them to conduct surveillance. For example, the CCTV system in the UK is being expanded as part of the “Internet Eyes” project which will allow British citizens to act as voluntary constabulary and receive rewards for helping to monitor the streets and public squares.

The pressing issue therefore continues to be the democratic regulation of surveillance technology, i.e. understanding how it can and should be used to strengthen our democratic society. This will be accomplished via a mix of education and enforcement. A balance between acting as a regulator and as an educator.

Douglass Rushkoff in his latest book “Program or Be Programmed” articulates a real need to understand the direction our society is going so we can be the agents in our destiny instead of allowing that future to be predetermined. He offers a sort of ten commandments that provide glimpses into how our world could be balanced, how this balance could make our commercial and political/governmental relations fair and just, thereby preserving our society’s democratic potential.

The key question therefore comes back to the rule of law, and its ability to provide that balance as a framework for our democratic society. What we’re witnessing with regard to social media and the rise of real-time analytics is a demonstration of rule by force, where might is right, and they who conquer the market, win the world. Can the rule of law play a role in protecting the bystanders in this battle between emerging oligopolies? Can the rule of law survive the revolutions of the early 21st century? The answer may come down to how we resolve the question of privacy, and whether it’s a right that’s inalienable, or a commodity long since sold.

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