The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

July 4, 2013

Aisha Sultan: Even digital natives value privacy

By Aisha Sultan
Globe Columnist

ST. LOUIS, Mo. — We know we're being watched.

The question is: Do we really care?

And if we do, what in the world can we realistically do about it? Very few among us can imagine a way to function without a phone or Internet connection. Even if we did, there are millions of surveillance cameras in the United States shooting billions of hours of footage. Couple that with facial recognition software and wave "hello" to Big Brother.

Still, there is a very human desire to keep parts of ourselves and our lives private.

Consider the popularity of Snapchat, a phone app that lets users send pictures and videos that self-destruct within a specified number of seconds. It promotes the user's ability to share "authentic" moments with friends.

"There is value in the ephemeral," the description on Snapchat's website reads. "Great conversations are magical. That's because they are shared, enjoyed, but not saved."

More than 150 million photos are shared through the service each day. The app is wildly popular among tweens and teens, as well as privacy-conscious Wall Street financiers, according to a report in New York magazine.

It may seem like sexting with a virtual condom.

But if we learned anything from the '90s, it's that there's no such thing as fail-safe protection. The same holds true for digital communication.

To get around the "self-destruct" aspect, Snapshot users can take screenshots of images they receive in order to save them. Unsurprisingly, some of those images have been posted online by those willing to betray former friends and lovers. And recent reports revealed that even deleted Snapchat messages can be retrieved by those with enough technical savvy. But for the vast majority of users, the app's suggestion of greater privacy is seductive enough.

There is an explicit assumption with this app, embraced by digital natives, that not every thought, image or action should be displayed and stored forever in a digital universe.

But the notion of privacy is tangled and sticky.

Our comfort level changes with whether it's our parents, our employers (or potential employers) or our government watching us.

When details leaked about the government's massive and sweeping collection of information about ordinary citizens, the public reaction reflected our collective ambivalence about the tension between privacy and security -- at least when there's more at stake than naked selfies.

Since 2007, the National Security Agency has operated PRISM, a secret electronic surveillance program. The massive call-tracking database secretly assembled by the U.S. government sweeps data on nearly every telephone call; online communications are also subject to widespread monitoring. The Patriot Act provisions allowing this sort of surveillance have twice been reauthorized by Congress.

There are those who say this is the price we pay for a stronger sense of security. Plus, those not plotting terrorist attacks have nothing to worry about, right? Individuals' pedestrian communications, whether "secret" to us or not, are not what government spies are seeking.

But the balance of power has swung too far towards corporations and government agencies, and away from ordinary citizens.

Perhaps too many of us have gotten used to the idea that someone we don't want to see our stuff can see our stuff.

This may be changing with the generation from which we least expect it.

I recently took an iPhone picture with my 7-year-old niece and filtered it through Instagram, the photo-sharing application on my phone. I asked her if I could post it on my account. She asked: Who can see it? Can strangers look at it?

I explained that my account is private and limited to only those people I know personally. I didn't get into a complicated explanation of data-sweeping and mining by businesses looking to profit, or governmental agencies looking for needles in haystacks.

This was the sort of lie of omission we tell children.

But her questions themselves mark the beginning of a shift.

Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age while trying to keep up with her tech-savvy children. Find her on Twitter: @AishaS.