Sometimes It Really Is Big Brother

Metaphors have long had a profound impact on the way we conceptualize problems.  Sometimes they persist, never to be shaken.  Other times, they wane in relevance, at times taking on a misleading character.  In privacy, the Big Brother metaphor has stuck, but has been superseded by others, notably Dan Solove’s invocation of Kafka’s The Trial.  As Dan underscores in The Digital Person: Technology and Privacy in the Information Age, unseen bureaucracies collect, process, and distribute our personal information in ways that have great power over our lives.  Information brokers, for instance, amass digital dossiers on individuals that often include incomplete and misleading data, selling them to potential employers who decline to interview or hire them.  In most instances, individuals have no idea that such digital dossiers have cost them work opportunities.  They also have no means to force data brokers to disclose or correct their dossiers.

Only in the exceptional case do people discover that such dossiers contain incorrect information about them.  For instance, as CNN reports, in 2009, data broker ChoicePoint provided an employer with a dossier on a Georgia man, which falsely asserted that he had two felony convictions.  The employer initially refused to hire the man and explained their reason to him.  The man contacted his congressman about the problem and, with his help, managed to convince ChoicePoint to remove the false criminal information from his dossier.

The metaphor of Kafka’s The Trial is so fitting.  Most, unlike the Georgia man, lose work opportunities, never knowing that a data broker has rendered a verdict on them:  Smoker!  Criminal!  Fiscally Irresponsible!  Employers care about these things, and in this environment may decline to hire a smoker or Crohn’s sufferer whose health bills may be high, no matter how capable the person seems.

But now comes news of a Main Lain Pennsylvania school that allegedly can remotely turn on the web cameras in its students’ laptops, watching kids at home and punishing them for their activities there.  (Cory Doctorow, who wrote the ingenious book Little Brother, quite fittingly broke the story on boingboing.)  The school confirmed that it can remotely monitor the students’ web cam inputs but only does so to locate missing or stolen laptops.  A student claims, however, that an assistant principal used images from his laptop to punish him for activities at home.  The student claims that the administrator mistook Mike & Ike candy on his home desk for drugs.  With this example, the Big Brother metaphor seems so utterly apt.

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