Good Code is a weekly podcast about ethics in our digital world. We look at ways in which our increasingly digital societies could go terribly wrong, and speak with those trying to prevent that. Each week, our host Chine Labbé engages with a different expert on the ethical dilemmas raised by our ever-more pervasive digital technologies. Good Code is a dynamic collaboration between the Digital Life Initiative at Cornell Tech and journalist Chine Labbé.

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On this episode:

Nissenbaum thinks the current model of consent-based privacy has failed us, leading to the privacy fatigue we are experiencing today.

She is calling for a post-consent approach to privacy, based on what she calls “contextual integrity”.

We ask her what she means by that, why she believes privacy is not dead, and how she avoids online surveillance, just like spiders avoid predators in the wild.

You can listen to this episode on iTunesSpotifySoundCloudStitcherGoogle PlayTuneInYouTube, and on all of your favorite podcast platforms.

We talked about:

  • We bring you on a tour of SPYSCAPE, New York’s new spy museum, which opened in midtown Manhattan in February 2018. If you haven’t been there, we highly recommend it. This interactive museum is both informational, and a lot of fun ! You will be profiled and discover what kind of spy you could be (apparently, I’d make a good agent handler!), and you will have the opportunity to channel your inner 15 year-old as you cross the “special ops laser tunnel” or as you practice detecting lies in an interrogation booth !
  • We talk about data obfuscation as a radical way to escape online surveillance. Turns out, obfuscation also exists in the wild. Scientists recently discovered spiders in the Amazon and in the Philippines that build decoys of themselves on their webs to deceive their predators. Read about it here and here.
  • Helen Nissenbaum presents TrackMeNot, a browser extension she created with technologist Daniel Howe. It generates fake queries in the background while you are searching for the information you really want. That way, it buries your searches and interests in so much noise that it is impossible – or at least very costly – to know what your REAL interests are. French technologist Vincent Toubiana is now maintaining it.
  • Nissenbaum then created AdNauseam, a plugin that clicks on every single ad on the web pages you visit. The goal here is to prevent your online profiling by ad agencies. AdNauseam was banned from the Chrome Store in 2017. Nissenbaum says that’s a sign that it had an impact.
  • In this episode, Nissenbaum also mentions a fascinating case opposing the Weather Channel and the city of Los Angeles. The city’s attorney is suing the Weather Channel for profiting from data collected in an allegedly deceitful way. 
  • We briefly mention the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force in May 2018. Here is a great article explaining what it means for businesses and people in Europe. And if you want more, there is a link to the full regulation at the bottom of the article. 
  • California also signed a new law to protect online privacy in June 2018. It will go into effect in January 2020. Read about it here.
  • Nissenbaum is not a big fan of the consent model. In 2017, a study confirmed her fears: no one reads terms of services.

Read more:

  • If you want to read more about contextual integrity, check out Helen Nissenbaum’s book “Privacy in Context, Technology, Policy and the Integrity of Social Life”.
  • To learn more about obfuscation as a way to protest online surveillance, read Finn Brunton and Helen Nissenbaum’s book “Obfuscation, a User’s Guide for Privacy and Protest”.
  • In The Atlantic last August, Ian Bogost argued that we had long lost the “personal-data privacy war”. In his piece called “Welcome to the age of privacy nihilism”, he wrote: “The opponent in the data-privacy invasion is not a comic-book enemy of fixed form, one that can be cornered, compromised, and defeated. Instead it’s a hazy murk, a chilling, Lovecraftian murmur that can’t be seen, let alone touched, let alone vanquished”. 
  • Our guest in Episode 1 was tech journalist Julia Angwin. If you haven’t listened to our conversation, you should! In her book “Dragnet Nation”, she explains how she tried to evade online surveillance. She quit Google search and started using DuckDuckGo, left Gmail and started using Riseup, used a burner phone for work calls. But mostly, she realized how complicated it was to evade the dragnets!
  • During six weeks, Gizmodo journalist Kahsmir Hill blocked tech giants from her life. She says it was “hell”.
  • In his open letter for the 30th birthday of the World Wide Web, web inventor Tim Berners-Lee warns: “If we continue to click consent without demanding our data rights be respected, we walk away from our responsibility to put these issues on the priority agenda of our governments”.
  • Can people really expect privacy in public places? Read about this “creepy” assignment given to law students, and how they easily managed to de-anonymize people in the street, just by listening in on what they said loudly enough to be heard, and picking up on visible details from their clothes and accessories. 
  • Finally, if you missed it, you should definitely read this New York Times’ investigation from December 2018 on why anonymous location data is not so anonymous after all.