For instance, if you are in a quiet doctor’s waiting room or even a full but quiet subway car, you might (though we’ve all been around those who don’t) wait to make a call to a friend, knowing you’ll be easily overheard. That discretion might fade away, however, in a noisy subway car or in an airport. In such places, you know people can still hear you, but you’re relying on another mechanism to protect your privacy: obscurity. Privacy by obscurity, as Woodrow Hartzog and Evan Selinger have written, “is the idea that when information is hard to obtain or understand, it is, to some degree, safe.” I wanted to demonstrate to my students how the most common of technologies can be used to shatter the perceived protections of obscurity and, in turn, reveal the admittedly thin mechanisms by which privacy is actually protected.
After describing the exercise and its goals, I was met with some skepticism. A few students found it to be “creepy” — a reaction I was quick to point out revealed their own notions about how public space was private. I assured them that the goal was not to eavesdrop on a purposefully private conversation, or to do any “digging” on the person, or to share or do anything with the information they found out. This was to be purely an exercise in whether or not you can actually be private in public places and whether people expect to be.
The project has had fascinating results. A number of students have written to me over the course of the break describing their experiences. A student who had been against the need for privacy regulation, arguing in class that those who have nothing to hide shouldn’t care who’s watching or listening, was particularly shocked. Sitting on an airplane, she listened to the man in front of her on the phone arranging his pickup from the airport. He revealed enough in that conversation that she was able to find his name. “It’s actually crazy when you think about all of the things that are really NOT private!” she wrote to me in an email.
Another wrote to say he’d de-anonymized a man in a loud conversation on the train. He overheard the man’s first name and typed it in combined with the name of the college on his shirt. The student explained in his email to me that even without a last name, he was able to find the stranger’s college major, minor and year of graduation. It helped that in one photo he was wearing the same outfit he wore that day on the train.
People outside my classroom have had experiences similar to those of my students. This week, I tweeted a short thread describing the assignment. “This reminds me of a time at a Starbucks,” a user replied. “This dude was having like a fight with his accountant or something. Kept, loudly, repeating his SSN and full name on the phone. After the third time I wrote it down, and handed it to him.”
Cludo Custom Site Search