Anonymity, privacy, and recovery online

Here’s the transcript of the talk I gave at PechaKucha Seattle in Feb 2015:

“It’s 2008, and I am newly sober alcoholic. And I’m on Twitter. I’m on Twitter as myself, under my real name, and I’m on Twitter under a fake name, for talking anonymously to other alcoholics in recovery, who all use fake names too, and pictures of their pets as avatars.

And I love their pictures of pets, and I love them, because they say raw, honest, hilarious, tragic, helpful, and authentic things. Truth-telling on a level it’s hard to come by in everyday life, where so much is advertising.

One day I’m tweeting from my Jan Bultmann Twitter account, and a message pops up on the side of the screen. Twitter, suggesting that I follow “people near me,” with interests like mine. To my horror, one of them is anonymous alcoholic ME!

Outside of a recovery meeting, it’s hard to explain the kinds of things you say to and hear from other alcoholics. But it’s easy to explain, and easy to understand, I think, that you promise never to betray the confidences that other people share with you.

Here in Seattle it’s pretty safe to be an alcoholic and out about it. People might ask you suspiciously about “the higher power thing,” but that’s about it. But in some places, the information that you are an alcoholic could be used to harm you. Badly.

I closed my alcoholic twitter account without even saying good-bye. But it was too late. Unfamiliar names, faces and titles were popping up as suggestions in my Linked In account, as people who might be part of my professional network, people I should connect with.

When this first happened, I was like, come on LinkedIn, what is your ISSUE?

Why are you suggesting that I know a military recruiter in San Antonio, a real estate broker in North Carolina, a priest in London? Then I looked a little closer, and…. ahhhh. My former twitter correspondents in recovery, all previously, we had imagined, anonymous.

I felt the same way I felt one day in a kayak in the San Juan islands when an orca surfaced briefly beside me, and I realized a pod was passing through. A sense of large, invisible predators moving under the surface all around me, intent on a mission of their own.

What we know about data mining now makes it seem like I was just foolish back then. Now, the mining and aggregating and selling of data has become a kind of background noise, as unregarded as wires that carry electricity or pipes that carry water, part of the infrastructure.

I’m a tech writer. I started writing for a Microsoft web site about how people with computer networks at home could protect their kids from cyberbullies, their home wi-fi from wardrivers, their passwords from social engineering attacks. This probably wasn’t very good for me.

Then, I worked briefly as a legislative aide in a city council office or two here in Seattle. In the public sector, I encountered the weird mirror side of personal privacy, that is, transparency requirements in government.

I came from Microsoft, where I’d got used to putting my every thought down in email. I was quickly educated by lifers in the political scene about how every email of mine could end up on the front page of a newspaper. How I should know that. How I should be very very careful about what I texted, emailed, what I wrote on a post-it.

Then the surveillance cameras went up on Alki Beach Park, along with their meshnet nodes. Those of us who were answering the council phones didn’t know anything about them, when the first constituents called in. Eventually it emerged that the $5 million system was owned and managed by the Seattle Police Department, acquired through federal funding, and available to assorted other agencies.

Those cameras, like the ill-fated Seattle police drones before them, stirred in me some flicker of hope that there was still a way out of the Watch Me Now society we were building for ourselves. Because I couldn’t really do anything about Twitter, or Linked In, apart from not use them. But I could make myself heard in municipal government.

I left my job as a legislative aide and, with some like-minded folks, formed the privacy advocacy group Seattle Privacy Coalition. We thought, if this area can lead with minimum wage law, marriage quality, and in ending marijuana prohibition, why can’t we lead in privacy protection, too?

Our friends joked about tinfoil hats. One said to me on a sidewalk, in a spooky voice, “Are we being watched right NOW?” We were at the corner of 4th and Cherry, we had smartphones in our pockets, and there were 5 surveillance cameras, public and private, in view, but at that time it still seemed like an absurd question.

And then, whistleblower Edward Snowden started talking, and the extent of the surveillance society began to be revealed. By the way, if you haven’t seen the Oscar-winning CitizenFour, about Snowden, please do. Regardless of how you feel about the man, you should have the information.

We’ve made progress here in Seattle (City Rolls Out Innovative Privacy Program). But if you follow the news, you know we’re already far behind. The data breaches are fast and furious, and the biometric systems: the iris scanners, the facial recognition software, the mobile DNA sampler apps, are coming online.

I told you my story to show you how feeling watched has worked in my life. Here’s what I know: It makes you choose not to say things. Choose not to do things. It makes your life smaller.

It makes you unfree.”


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