Protecting Your Privacy in the Virtual World

Teenagers and young adults put their private information on the Internet, seemingly with little thought about consequences for their personal and professional lives. How has the Web changed American ideas about privacy? At the University of Southern California, students express their views about sharing their personal information with a virtual world of strangers.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And I'm Madeleine Brand.

What do you consider private?

CHADWICK: Maybe your answer will depend on how old you are. Remember last year, the news that a federal agency was eavesdropping on telephone calls made by American citizens was for security? A lot of people were outraged, especially a lot of young people.

BRAND: That's despite the fact that it is young people that are hooked on such serial, personal privacy violators as MySpace, YouTube and reality television. I sat down with a group of college students to discuss their opinions about privacy and how their notions about it have been changed by modern technology.

Maybe no other generation of young people has been so willing to reveal itself as this one.

Unidentified Woman #1: People want to be looked at. Oh, I hope - I wonder how many people are looking at my profile.

BRAND: We're in a small undergraduate political science class at USC. We've asked these students to talk about privacy and the Internet. All but one in this class of eight has a profile on the social networking site Facebook. Why? Well, for banal, practical reasons.

Unidentified Woman #2: I picked my roommate over Facebook.

BRAND: It's a good way to meet people.

Unidentified Woman #3: It's a lot easier than actual face-to-face interaction.

BRAND: And because it's the thing to do.

Unidentified Man #1: It's the same kind of thing as the yearbook where everyone wants to have all their pages full. And the coolest kids have to get, like, bonus pages to staple in for kids to sign.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: And here's what may be the greatest allure. It's a great way to peek into someone else's life.

Unidentified Man #2: It kind of satisfies the voyeur that lives within every one of us. And to me, that's kind of scary.

BRAND: It was that idea that we've become a nation of voyeurs that got the whole privacy ball rolling in the first place. In 1890, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis - he later became a Supreme Court Justice - wrote a Harvard Law Review article. They titled it “The Right to Privacy,” and it was the first time anyone had called for such a right.

These men - Brandeis and Warren - were outraged by newspapers printing all sorts of scandalous stories. Here's what they wrote.

Unidentified Man #3: Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life, and numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the housetops.

BRAND: Brandeis and Warren's article is in part a rant against the media where gossip has become…

Unidentified Man #3: A trade pursued with industry as well as effrontery, lowering social standards and morality.

BRAND: Oh, what a difference 116 years makes. In the USC class, the students freely admit they pursue their gossiping with industry.

Mr. MAX LAFKIN(ph) (Student, University of Southern California): That it's about fame and kind of popularity because each time you get like a new friend request on Facebook, you know that that's somebody who's looking at your profile now. And they can talk about you to other people.

BRAND: Let me introduce you to these students. That was Max Lafkin. We also heard from Andi Hundall(ph), Emil Matwani(ph) and Elena Benstock(ph).

They're all around 19 years old, plus or minus a year or two. They don't have grave privacy concerns about the Internet. That's because they believe they're in control over what they put out there. They decide what to reveal. Here's Max.

Mr. LAFKIN: …like a little piece of me that I would like to project to people is on Facebook. And any of my private sphere, private anything, I feel is still private.

BRAND: Their Facebook pages don't tell the full story of who they are. They may, in fact, reflect more a fantasy self or the self they think their peers will like.

For them, the Web is not full-fledged reality. Andy talks about this thing called Facebook stalking - that means checking in on other people's Facebook pages.

Ms. ANDI HUNDALL (Student, University of Southern California): In conversation, we say, oh, I'm Facebook stalking so and so, like it's just an average comment people make. And it's something like nobody thinks it is a bad thing until that stalking turns into something physical or in the real world outside of cyberspace.

BRAND: But their teacher Mark Khan(ph) tries to inject a little reality into cyberspace. He asks his students, well, what if I'm an employer and I decide to do a little Googling?

Ms. HUNDALL: I'm ashamed of anything I've done in my life, so I don't care.

Professor MARK KHAN (University of Southern California): Maybe for a school project, you have been to a number of pornography sites, but you're now applying for a job offer. And my sources tell me that, you know, when Andi was 19 years old, she was looking at pornographic Web sites.

Ms. HUNDALL: I don't think that, you know, when somebody is hiring you that they should be looking at my Facebook. But I think it's irrelevant.

Prof. KAHN: You think so. They might not.

Ms. HUNDALL: Right, exactly. But what I'm saying, like, yeah, I believe in the right to privacy, but obviously that doesn't exist to the extent that we would have hoped.

BRAND: And then he asks a couple of questions that stumped the entire class.

Prof. KAHN: Is there right to privacy? What about other people who talk about you and reveal secrets about you? Do you have some kind of right to privacy that protects you in those instances?

BRAND: Oh, Mr. Brandeis, Mr. Warren? Help these young people out.

Unidentified Man #3: The common law secures to each individual the right of determining, ordinarily, to what extent his thoughts, sentiments and emotions shall be communicated to others.

BRAND: That means that even though the right to privacy is not spelled out in the Constitution, it still exists, created by the courts. The biggest privacy decision came down in 1965, well after Brandeis and Warren retired to their eternal chambers. It was the Griswold decision. The Supreme Court struck down a Connecticut law banning contraception for married couples. The court said there was the right to marital privacy.

Another big privacy decision, in a Texas case, also involved sex. In 2003, the court held that states cannot outlaw gay sex. 2003, that was just a few years ago. What you do behind closed doors, provided it's legal, is private. But what about virtual closed doors?

Facebook is no longer restricted to college students, but the company says only your friends or people in your network can see your profile.

Prof. KAHN: Well, let me tell you one thing the FBI did in the ‘60s, which, you know, later caused problems.

BRAND: That's USC professor Mark Kahn.

Prof. KAHN: They had a program where, basically, they put, you know, undercover FBI agents into student organizations to monitor what was going on. The argument wasn't that this group or that group were doing terrible things, but potentially they might. We need to know about it.

BRAND: And then he poses this hypothetical.

Prof. KAHN: It's the same thing with Facebook. We're just going to go online, create an identity for ourselves and see what all these people are doing. I'm particularly suspicious of Andi, so I'll keep an eye on her. Go ahead, Jenna.

Ms. JENNA HUTSTEIN(ph) (Student, University of Southern California): So there's still that basic premise that whatever the government is…

BRAND: Jenna Hutstein answers. She says there's a difference between the two because in the ‘60s example, there was still a government premise that they were trying to protect the public from potential harm.

Prof. KAHN: Do you think the government occasionally abuses its authority?

Ms. HUTSTEIN: It's probably definitely possible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAND: And that's about it. The discussion veers off into whether you can be prosecuted for posting pictures of yourself drinking if you're underage. Later, Mark Kahn assesses his class.

Prof. KAHN: These kids are far more trusting than I would be, and I think most people in my generation would be. Our presumption is that you can't trust government to do anything other than what's wrong. Their presumption is you can assume the government's going to do something right. They weren't worried about government surveillance.

BRAND: On the Web, that is. Again, that's because they don't see it as real. But when I ask them about the government listening in on telephone calls…

Ms. ELENA BENSTOCK (Student, University of Southern California): I think that's pretty scary.

Mr. LAFKIN: With everything, you have to draw a line and decide where you're going to trade off between national security and privacy or civil rights. Just being able to listen to phone calls is just a bridge too far.

Ms. BINSTOCK: What kind of society are you creating if you disregard civil rights and, like, that makes America not whatever it's supposed to be.

BRAND: That's Elena Benstock and Max Lafkin, pretty much summing up what everyone in the class thinks - except for Jeff Barry(ph).

Mr. JEFF BARRY (Student, University of Southern California): If it means that, you know, they're going to monitor phone calls from people who are calling Afghanistan and other countries who have, you know, known links to al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations, I think that that's okay for right now.

BRAND: Remember at the beginning of this story when I said every student but one has a Facebook profile? Well, that one is Jeff.

Mr. BARRY: I'm probably crazier than most people, but the fact that there are people who could be looking at my personal information, you know, in the dead of night trying to figure out, you know, what my personal interests are is something that's terribly frightening for me.

BRAND: The other students roll their eyes and snicker.

Unidentified Woman #4: You're so funny, Jeff.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BARRY: Someone, someone…

BRAND: Maybe he's a little paranoid. They also can't believe Jeff or anyone else they know could possibly be considered important enough to be monitored by the government. That's probably true, but what's also true is that they consider each other important enough to monitor, to observe, to talk about online, and they really don't know who else is watching.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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