The Cost of Digital Exposure

Columbia Committee on Global Thoughts Examines How Data Collection Is Shaping Public and Private Lives

New York, December 21, 2015—Digital footprints are minutely tracked and dissected by market and state players, yet the growing implications of these practices for individual privacy and power have been poorly understood, said the panelists at a recent discussion, “Global Exposure: Virtual Transparency in the 21st Century,” at Columbia Law School.

Columbia Law School Professor Bernard Harcourt,
author of
Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in
the Digital Age, was a featured panelist at the event.
Billed as the latest installment in a series of a multidisciplinary “think-ins” sponsored by Columbia University’s Committee on Global Thought, the Dec. 9 event featured Bernard Harcourt, the Isidor and Seville Sulzbacher Professor of Law and director of the Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought at Columbia Law School; Betsy Reed, editor-in-chief of The Intercept; and Clive Thompson, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired.
Introductory remarks were offered by the Committee on Global Thought’s David K. Park, dean of strategic initiatives at Columbia University, and the discussion was moderated by Judith McHale, president and CEO of Cane Investments and a former Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs in the Obama administration.
“The invasiveness of today’s technology is jaw-dropping,” said Harcourt, whose new book, Exposed: Desire and Disobedience in the Digital Age, tackles how today’s digital landscape makes it easy for others to monitor, profile, and define individual desires. “The way it shapes us is frightening.”
Its power reaches beyond the “surveillance state” and the potential to collect phone, text, email, travel and camera interactions. Private corporations gather vast amounts of data from consumers. Social media, including Facebook, YouTube, and Flickr, profile users and market the data. Even a smart TV can transmit information most people would consider private. 
“We have been shaped by technology, but we do not know who exactly is on the other side,” said Harcourt, “and we do not seem to realize the problem of not knowing who is on the other side, when what is circulating is power.” 
Also featured at the event were, clockwise from top left: former
Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs,
Judith McHale; David K. Park, dean of strategic initiatives at
Columbia University; editor-in-chief of
The Intercept, Betsy Reed;
Wired columnist Clive Thompson.
Harcourt pointed to a texting program U.S. government operatives set up for Cubans under the name ZunZuneo, using several front corporations in an apparent attempt to open the door to political messaging. A future battle is brewing over the use of encryption to prevent access to information by unauthorized parties.
Corporations collect data to “own the customer,” said McHale, and individuals have little power over what’s shared, in part because they are so eagerly sharing information on the public commons of the Internet.
“What do we do about this?” asked Thompson. “Is there a way to put some of the desire genie back in the bottle?” Any solution will have to come from society as a whole, he said. While some people have come up with creative responses to impede tracking--teenagers, for example, use coded language to hide the true meaning of public posts from parents—Thomspon believes that personal identity can now be protected only with the implementation of new laws.
“The individual can only do so much,” he said, noting that research indicates that more education about digital surveillance heightens people’s interest in seeking legal restraints.
Harcourt detailed a digital power struggle now taking place in Chicago over information concerning the police killing of African American teenager Laquan McDonald, as the mayor, the police and the state’s attorney face questions about a potential cover-up. The public is asking for emails and other data that could establish a timeline. “Political struggle has become a struggle over digital traces,” he said.
A positive flip-side to the use of digital information, said Betsy Reed, editor-in-chief of The Intercept, is allowing watchdogs and whistleblowers to turn the public gaze on the actions of the powerful. The WikiLeaks revelations still reverberate, she said, and new voices are finding outlets. “The transparency movement is upsetting the traditional power dynamics.”
A video of the discussion is available here.