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Akst: Online, no such thing as privacy

In the wake of the National Security Agency scandal, people are asking: How much privacy do we have to surrender (or lose) to remain safe?

The issue of privacy erosion is not likely to abate soon. Outgoing FBI Director Robert S. Mueller III on Wednesday became the first official to publicly admit that the bureau had used surveillance drones inside the United States.

As long as you haven’t done anything wrong, we’re told, you have nothing to worry about.

Perhaps that’s a tad cynical. I suspect that much of our worry has little to do with terrorism or national security. It’s more about having our foibles, faults and flaws revealed to a larger audience.

I’ve done things I wouldn’t want spattered across cyberspace. Thankfully, as a recent Internet meme points out, one good thing about being older than 40 is that most of the crazy stuff my demographic did was before the modern internet.

So true.

But back to privacy. Our sense of privacy erosion online is real and manifests not only as a matter of security concern, but also of commerce.

Nanosecond by nanosecond, we lose privacy via at least three significant avenues:

1. The U.S. government collects vast amounts of information. As the Washington Post and others reported a couple weeks ago, “The National Security Agency and the FBI are tapping directly into the central servers of nine leading U.S. Internet companies, extracting audio and video chats, photographs, emails, documents, and connection logs that enable analysts to track foreign targets.”

Through the once secret – now infamous – PRISM system, trillions of communications are scooped up that include ordinary Americans, even though the focus is on international communications.

Facebook’s top attorney said last week that the company received permission to make new but still very limited revelations about government orders to turn over user data.

The Associated Press reported that Facebook received about 10,000 government requests from all government entities in the last six months of 2012. The requests involved the accounts of about 19,000 Facebook users.

2. Personal information is increasingly a commodity. Collectively (but not always accurately) known as “Big Data,” companies large and small are using large databases as drivers of advertising and marketing. In one famous example, Target’s data crunchers correctly determined from shopping patterns that a teenager was pregnant before she had disclosed her condition to family members or the store.

Big Data is troubling on two counts. First, it’s creepy that numbers seemingly paint who we are and what we’re going to do, say, or buy. Second – and more ironic – social scientists are warning about hidden biases in using data to predict humanity … but is the business community listening?

Kate Crawford, principal researcher at Microsoft Research and a visiting professor at the MIT Center for Civic Media, writes that “Data and data sets are not objective, they are creations of human design. We give numbers their voice, draw inferences from them, and define their meaning through our interpretations. Hidden biases in both the collection and analysis stages present considerable risks, and are as important to the big-data equation as the numbers themselves.”

3. Americans, concerned about privacy, still freely publicize a large amount of personal information.

As the Pew Internet & American Life Project noted in May, “Youth are sharing more personal information on their profiles than in the past. They choose private settings for Facebook, but share with large networks of friends.” Among teens with Facebook profiles, 14 percent have set their profiles so that everyone can see postings. Among teens with Twitter profiles, 64 percent have set profiles so everyone can see postings.

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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