Reading TUgether book sparks dialogue over online privacy and social media

Panelists discuss issues of media and democracy in relation to “The Circle” by Dave Eggers

Issues and concerns about online privacy and oversharing on social media are ever-present and constantly arising in today’s day and age. Last week, several events focused on the class of 2019’s Reading TUgether assignment discussed these timely issues in relation to the assigned book, “The Circle.”

“The Circle” tells the story of Mae Holland, a young college graduate who lands a coveted job at a powerful tech company called The Circle. As Holland moves up the corporate ladder, she becomes consumed in the company’s endeavor to achieve all-around transparency of information and eliminate the concept of privacy.

Robert Blystone, professor of the Summer Bridge program says that the themes in the book reveal concerning issues around privacy in today’s media-centered culture.

“The idea that The Circle talks about, the change in privacy and how it’s interpreted, is happening to us all, and we clearly don’t have the same level of privacy. We’re all in somebody’s database, somehow, and it’s really hard to be anonymous anymore,” Blystone said. “The book, in terms of its technology, isn’t overly accurate, but that’s not why it was written. It was written to reveal this loss of privacy and, essentially, what the book has to say is that big companies act like big governments, and if governments can take away your privacy, so can big companies.”

One of the first events was a morning Q&A session on August 26 in which two university guests, Jeff South and Nate Cardozo, met with Blystone and the Summer Bridge students and Sheryl Tynes, associate vice president for academic affairs, and discussed questions about the importance of privacy, trade-offs between privacy and security and the possibility of a society such as one depicted in “The Circle” ever becoming a reality. Both South and Cardazo were on campus to contribute to these discussions.

“‘The Circle’ is a little bit of a parody of the possible worst-nightmare scenario. I don’t think that it poses a serious scenario; I don’t think that’s going to happen, but it certainly could,” said Cardozo, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

“A lot of [the changes in privacy over the years are] technology-driven, with certainly an element of convenience,” said South, associate professor of mass communications at Virginia Commonwealth University. “We can do things that [we] could not do [in the past] in terms of sharing information that [we] want [our] friends to see. The line between sharing and oversharing is a slippery slope.”

Students also asked why privacy should matter to those who have nothing to hide.

“Privacy is not really about us as individuals. It’s about society,” Cardozo said. “Individual privacy is not what matters. It’s the ability of people pushing controversial news, pushing for social change, pushing for any sort of democratic change, they need to be able to do their work in privacy, and we all benefit from it. So, it’s ensuring that, not necessarily [the person who] might not be a particularly juicy target for anyone stealing their information, but there are other people out there who are.”

“In the film ‘Citizen Four,’ a documentary about Edward Snowden, he says something very interesting about privacy,” South said. “‘Saying that [you are] willing to give up your right to privacy because [you] have nothing to hide is like saying, “Let’s give up the right to free speech because I have nothing to say.” Just because you might feel like you could give up your right to something doesn’t mean that the entire society should have to give up that right.”

The panelists also spoke on what students should take away from the book and its discussion.

“Think long term,” South said. “Don’t just think about what would happen if I share this little piece of information with this one company, but think, ‘What would happen if it’s everybody who shares information like that with not just that one company but with the rest of the world?’ Will our world be a better place if that happens?”

“Privacy, both online and offline, is an important right that we need to make sure that we control,” Cardozo said. “It’s the right to keep our communications, our photos and texts as ours. We shouldn’t give it up cavalierly. [Some online services] are great, but we should be cognizant of not going too far.”

Later that evening, a panel consisting of South, Cardozo and Aaron Delwiche, professor of communication, convened in Laurie Auditorium. Jennifer Henderson, chair of the department of communication moderated, and the session concluded with questions from students in the audience.

“Democracy requires privacy,” Cardozo said. “The hard work that makes democracies function requires privacy. You can’t organize a gay rights movement or a gun control movement or a pro-gun ownership movement unless you’re able to operate in private. The secret ballot is a cornerstone of a democracy. The Circle’s [system] is something that won’t work.”

“I think it’s really important to remember that the right to privacy is a human right. As individuals, we have the right to have secrets, secret thoughts, things that are just for ourselves. “The Circle’s” radical transparency goes way too far,” Delwiche said.

Henderson then asked who posed a bigger threat to privacy: the government, or corporations?

“The more I keep seeing collaborations between governments and private companies, I think it’s hard to even draw the line,” South said. “When you have a national security agency teaming up with AT&T or Verizon to get records, it seems like it’s very blurry whether you can say that the government is the bigger threat or private companies are the bigger threat. I think we’re seduced into thinking that private companies are not a threat.… I think we tend to trust those businesses more with our data, but it scares me because I’m not sure that trust is necessarily warranted.”

When asked whether there was such a thing as technological inevitability, Delwiche disagreed.

“This idea that technology is inevitable is absolutely incorrect,” Delwiche said. “Human beings make the decisions to use these technologies, and the danger of this rhetoric of inevitability is that it takes human beings out of the equation. People stop saying, ‘Wait a second, is this a good idea?’ … I think we need to preserve the ability to speak back to technology and say it’s not inevitable.”

The topic of online anonymity arose, and it was asked whether using real names online would result in more civil behavior, as suggested in “The Circle.”

“You don’t automatically become polite when you use your real name. Facebook has a real name policy. [However] it’s not the most polite place. So, I disagree with the premise … Using their real name does not make people more civil. [Also,] the ability to not use your real name sometimes is critical in terms of safety.” Cardozo said.

All the talk about the perils of transparency and environments in large tech companies posed the question: are the panelists suggesting that Trinity University graduates should not work for such entities?

“Absolutely not,” Delwiche said. “My hope is that [graduates] will have bolstered, with [their] Trinity education, the options to work wherever [they] want… But I hope that, when [they] are making decisions with technology, [they] are thinking about these implications, thinking about these issues [and] how people will be affected.”