Privacy and Surveillance in the Digital Age

In light of the anniversary of the Snowden leaks the Wilson Center held a public event on Surveillance, Security and Trust. It’s becoming clear that our regulatory frameworks are severely outdated in regards to current and evolving technologies. In addition, there is a schism between the way older and younger generations view privacy. At the Commons Lab we asked several of our 20-something employees what they thought about privacy and surveillance in the Digital Age.

Are there differences in this country between the way young people see privacy and the way older people do? 

Generational Divide. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Female, Age 20: Absolutely. There are perception differences across a wide spectrum of issues between young people and older people. Personally, I think that the culture and environment that the younger people have grown up in and adopted creates a lack of privacy. For example, with social media, text messaging, and other recent technologies, our lives are never really private. Additionally, with available technology, we continue to hear about how our government can listen and see everything. Although we might not support it, we have grown accustomed to hearing such things, which conditions us to accept a lack of privacy.

Female, Age 22: There is a definitive difference in the way older Americans and younger Americans view privacy. As younger Americans trade their personal information for digital convenience, older Americans are more reluctant as a demographic to participate on the Internet with the same openness. Younger Americans have become accustomed to clicking ‘Accept’ to fine print attachments, often unaware of the degree of privacy they are relinquishing to quickly participate. A good metaphor of this is the oft discussed “American Dream.” It is certainly arguable that in generations past, it was the private ownerships of a private home surrounded by a white picket fence that symbolized success, marking a private space to conduct private affairs. Now, younger Americans gladly share pictures and stories publicly on the Internet depicting what happens in these spaces, offering up the details of their lives for public validation. I think younger Americans are simply willing to share more with a wider circle, but want to feel that the circle they share it with it still under their jurisdiction. Older Americans, on the other hand, may not be concerned with sharing at all with such an audience.

Female, Age 28: Mainly we don’t care. While I’m not considered a digital native I still came of age during the digital revolution and the idea that someone knows my whereabouts at every moment just doesn’t bother me personally — that is, until I think through the greater implications to society and government oversight.  Many of my friends and I follow the rule, “Don’t post it if you don’t want your grandma to read it.”

Male, Age 20: Yes, I would guess that there probably is. Particularly, I expect that the younger generations are more accepting of how commonly their electronic information is shared around the world. We have grown up with it as such a ubiquitous part of our lives that you can’t help but recognize it and move on. For my own part, I simply assume that anything I do on the internet can, and will, become public information. Once you take that as fact, then it becomes just like any other public forum and you act accordingly. I feel that this is an attitude more commonly held by our age group and one that separates us from the opinions of our parents.

Studies show young people support Edward Snowden and are much more likely to sympathize with him than older people. Does this mean young people will become more suspicious of surveillance programs?

Source: Pixabay.

Female, Age 20: Surveillance programs are suspicious by nature. I’m not sure how this connects to our support or lack of support to Edward Snowden. The way I see it, younger people like to stick it to “The Man.” The Man is setting up surveillance programs, so by default, we need to be on the other side of the issue.

Female, Age 22: I think younger Americans may use the Internet to announce the fact that they are more suspicious of surveillance programs, but probably not enough to change behavior. At this point, it is easier to share information than not, and I don’t see a huge change in youth Internet behavior in response to surveillance programs. They may be suspicious, but I don’t think that will manifest in any paradigm shift in Internet participation.

Female, Age 28: While I don’t care too much about my personal privacy, I do care about the idea of a larger tracking system. I’ve noticed similar sentiment and caution being used by friends in light of the Snowden leaks, such as Facebook posts reading, “If anyone ever saw my group texts I would be fired in an instant.” So suspicion is certainly there, but in a jovial manner.

Male, Age 20: I think that young people are already very suspicious of surveillance programs, especially given how omniscient they are portrayed in media these days. At the same time, I believe we also recognize their necessity and ability to stop very bad things from happening. People will probably always be suspicious (and that will likely only escalate into the future as technology improves further), but as long as such programs don’t actually impinge on our freedom to speak and act then I don’t see it as a serious problem. I don’t think anyone likes the thought of big brother looking down on us all the time, but realistically the only people it should actually impact are the ones that are doing something very wrong.

Oliver Stone has announced he is directing a  film based on a a book about Snowden by Guardian reporter Luke Harding. There is a second movie in the works based on Glenn Greenwald’s Snowden book.  With all the glamour surrounding Snowden, I’m wondering what will happen down the road. Is there a new generation of whistleblowers in the making?

Female, Age 20: Well, there are always a new generation of ‘whistleblowers’ in the making, usually disguised in different settings. Slavery was overthrown. Prohibition didn’t last.

Female, Age 22: I think it’s possible, the power of pop culture is certainly real and hacking has been glorified. Snowden received a lot of praise from a lot of people. Young people are used to having the information of the world at their fingertips and can be more cognizant of the fact that details are missing. I don’t know that this will inspire more whistleblowing, but I would certainly not call it an impossibility.

Female, Age 28: Fans, yes. Copycats, no. Whistleblowers have an easier medium to operate within, with the ability to instantly share information, but it still doesn’t change the nature of what happens after someone becomes a whistleblower (exile, etc.). However, copycats emphasizing that the government has no control over the internet is widely apparent.

Male, Age 20: I could see a couple more coming forward in the future, but I doubt it will become a sweeping trend. The fact of the matter is, while it may sound noble, the actual act is a huge, life-changing decision that comes with many negative impacts. Most people are simply not willing to make those sacrifices. Also the media attention is going to wane with each incidence, meaning the positive results are going to decrease while the negatives remain the same. Consequently, I can’t see it happening all that often.

Is Snowden a hero or a traitor? How, if at all, have you or other people in this country changed their views on this question over the past year?

Female, Age 20: Unfortunately I do not know enough to have a strong opinion on this question, but for some reason, with whatever little knowledge I have, I do not consider Snowden a traitor.

Female, Age 22: Edward Snowden’s actions brought forth public discourse about what privacy means in the age of the Internet. In my opinion, this discourse was and is essential and I am glad that Americans were made aware to some degree of the sort of surveillance they were experiencing and the behavior their government was engaging in. However, there is a definitive degree of irresponsibility that cannot be ignored in the release of this information that threatened lives and political stability. Snowden’s actions could perhaps be labeled “heroic,” but they were also reckless. I think that the conversation surrounding Snowden has sort of leveled out to this sort of characterization.

Female, Age 28: Regardless if he is defined as a hero or not, he garnered the media support and interest for a topic that sorely needed attention. I would argue that my opinion of security in general has changed greatly over the past year in regards to hacking, not just government surveillance. More and more, I’m hyper-aware of the flaws in all software platforms and the inability for developers to keep up with the million ways in which one can hack a program.

Male, Age 20: I would hesitate to call him either. On the one hand, I have enormous respect for his willingness to make such personal sacrifice just to do what he believes is moral. I also think that Americans do have a right to know, at least in a general sense, what kind of information is being collected about them and so I think he was doing something noble in that regard. At the same time, that information is collected for very real, national security related reasons and if what he did had potential to get people hurt then I don’t believe he should be lauded for his efforts.


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