Stacks & the illusion of private

Characterised by a distribution network, the internet itself is an inherently generative platform. Prior to this, information networks were centralised – individual nodes, all connected to the one main frame computer. Controlled.

So now, the framework of information is a web of nodes, each single node is able to reach the entire network. The behavioural patterns of these nodes are echoed in the way the Internet behaves. The free flow, low cost, low risk nature of this information network has it’s issues but is the closest to effectively free as we can get. There are platforms, or ‘walled-gardens’ that have their own framework. Their own rules. But the general population are quite accepting of these platform restrictions because of features that promise to make the platform more accessible and user-integrated. For example a heavily restricted, monitored platform like Facebook has curated content, protection from the ‘big bad net’, the ‘everyone is here’ attitude, and its easy because ‘it just works’. (Mitew 2014)


For me these days emailing isn’t generally used as a platform for instant, personal messaging. It’s more something I see as a menial, daily chore to maintain. If you desperately wanted to see the inside of my Gmail inbox, the most scandalous thing you’d find would be the latest update from Polyvore. But when signing up for an account with Google, you’re putting your hands up to have Google’s hands in your emails. By scanning emails automatically, Google retrieves information from sent and received emails, and uses that data to target the advertising of a user. These algorithms also ‘fix’ search results in an attempt to recognise current behaviours and interests.

Google says:

“We may share aggregated, non-personally identifiable information publicly and with our partners — like publishers, advertisers or connected sites.” This is just a euphemism for selling.

“By understanding your preferences we can ensure that we give you the search results that you’re looking for, and by analyzing the search logs of millions of users in aggregate, we can continually improve our search algorithm, develop new features, keep our systems secure and even predict the next flu outbreak,” the search giant writes on Good to Know, its website explaining privacy and the policy.

What google would have you believe is that it’s all just a tool, and if anything they’re doing you a favour. But the fact I really can’t get my head around is this;

“When you use our services or view content provided by Google, we may automatically collect and store certain information in server logs.” Indefinitely. FOREVER. The company is adamant that it will not give your information to advertisers — Google uses the information, though, to place the ads it purchases.

As hard as I looked, I couldn’t find a definite answer on and internal or external policies that govern how long servers can/will retain the information of users. While on the surface, targeted advertising and systematic preference sorting seems harmless where do we draw the line between rules and just what’s right – as in retrieving and sharing data with third parties (although they might be referred to as sponsors or partners) is a flagrant violation of our private choices, likes, preferences, behaviours that ultimately build a very personal picture of who we are. Anonymous or not. It’s traceable. And keeping this without providing the individuals adequate information about how their data is being used further exacerbates the issue.

Zittrain articulates law has long recognized the difference between rules and standards stating that “there are well-known tradeoffs between these approaches. Rules are less subject to ambiguity and, if crafted well, inform people exactly what they can do, even if individual situations may render the rule impractical or, worse, dangerous. Standards allow people to tailor their actions to a particular situation. Yet they also rely on the good judgment of often self-interested actors—or on little-constrained second-guessing of a jury or judge that later decrees whether someone’s actions were unreasonable.”

Given the monetary investment of such data and data sharing systems, I question the ability of anyone to police the ‘standards’ of corporations that act in complete disregard of individual right to privacy.


If we know this, then where lies the appeal of other ‘walled’ platforms out of reach from Google such as Facebook, Apple Apps and Amazon? Sure, don’t forget the big bad Google wolf, but your Facebook – your safe, private profile (ahem) – is also operating under the guise of social content and most worryingly has historically declined to publish transparency reports outlining how often law enforcement agencies request access to user data. Here are 7 more controversial things Facebook does with user data.

Next time I use Gmail, I’m going to question whether it’s really worth selling off bits of my information in a 1984-esque deal. Sorry, Google, but I still can’t help but feel like you’ve just looked up my skirt.

Mitew, T 2014, Feaudalisation of the Internet, lecture, University of Wollongong, accessed 06/09/14

Zittrain, J 2008, ‘The lessons of Wikipedia’, in S Perera (ed.), Future of the Internet – And How to Stop It, Yale University Press, chap. 6 accessed 06/09/2014


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