While my work throughout the past two terms has been centred on privacy and the unaccountability of the US and UK governments and their spying abilities, as this third term progressed, I began to consider whether we, as people, could argue for privacy given how much we give up on the internet. I had already addressed this issue in Term 1 with my spy wall. In this piece, I scrutinised a number of my course mate’s social media accounts and retrieved as much information as I could about them. I then connected them to how they knew each other and displayed my findings on a large wall. Despite having explored these notions however, the students that I used were art students, meaning I was connected to them on social media accounts and had access to all their information. The story would have been different for students I was not connected to or didn’t know at all.
At the start of the Jeremy Corbyn Box incident (read about what happened here), a post on a Lancaster University-related Facebook group ‘Overheard at Lancaster’ (not run by or affiliated by the University in anyway) received a lot of attention and backlash. In the comment thread of this post, students expressed their discontent towards the piece, as well as towards the arts in general. Perturbed and angered by this negativity towards my degree, I decided to create a database outlining the information of one of the students that had spoken disrespectfully. I planned to use this account and invite this student in for a “chat” about their work before confronting them about their comments and revealing to them the ease with which I was able to find out so much about them. The piece would have been my way of getting back at the student, but also a way to show him the dangers of being so vocal on the internet. Given the situation, however, I decided to hold back on going through with this idea as I knew the risks of deceiving a student and the ethical problems that would undoubtedly ensue.
In the days following the post when my emotions subsided, I was incredibly relieved that I had not gone through with my plan. Not only would the piece have been irrefutably unethical, it could have caused harm to another student, and further repercussions could have been detrimental. I used this opportunity to explore how it is useless in some respects for anyone to argue for privacy, given how much we willingly give up on social media.
From ruthless investigation, I had found out the student’s nickname, education history and political views, as well as articles that they themselves had written. From these, I was able to identify their varying views on a number of matters and could form my own opinion of them. What is perhaps most surprising is the ease with which I was able to do all of this. 1 hour of following links on Facebook, scrolling through Google, exploring LinkedIn and scrutinising the student’s website provided me with all the valuable information surrounding them. I could learn about every aspect of the student’s life through a quick google search. I could discover that they achieved 1 A*, 5 As and a B at GCSE, 2As and a B at A level and currently study a BSc at Lancaster simply from their LinkedIn profile. I could also find the student’s interests and volunteer status, and whether they are currently employed. All of this information was readily available online for people to read, which ultimately begs the question: how can we argue for privacy if we give up all of our information online anyway?
The question, however, is not so much to do with how much we already give up, but what we don’t give up. A better way to address this idea is to think of the following story proposed by Glenn Greenwald: suppose you proclaimed that you didn’t care for privacy because you didn’t have anything to hide. If that was the case, then you wouldn’t have an issue with providing someone you didn’t know with the passwords to all of your social media accounts and allowing them to access these pages. If I were to write my email address down and ask viewers to do that exact thing, I project that I would receive no emails because there is a degree of privacy that people intuitively expect. People may state that they do not care about their privacy, but expect there to be a lock on their door, or a password on their Facebook. These things act as a protective barrier; a place to escape for soul-searching; a place where someone can truly be themselves. Given this, then, we can argue for privacy. As Greenwald himself stated: “[people] do things to safeguard themselves. They put locks on bedrooms/bathrooms, passwords on social media. They have places where they can go to escape from world”… “We lose the critical part of what it means to be a free and fulfilled person” if we rid ourselves of our right to privacy. If you put a stick of tape over your webcam, you care about privacy; if you have a problem with showing someone your Facebook messages, you care about privacy. The issue is not that privacy is not sought, it’s that people confuse what can be meant by privacy. Having the ability to lock your room is a form of privacy. Being able to do that is your right as a living, existing, complex human being.
When I began my enquiry mid-way through first term, I ushered the phrase “I don’t care about privacy because I have nothing to hide.” Since then, I have changed my tune. Seeing the extent to which the UK government attempts to find things about about me as a part of a larger collective, the measures they go to and the few regulations that exist to control this made me realise that I, as a citizen, deserve to keep things to myself and need to fight for it. There are some things that the government doesn’t need to know. I do not break the law and I do not have anything that I need to hide, but I still deserve my right to privacy. As Snowden rightly postulates: “The government is supposed to know nothing about us and we should know everything about them. It is private citizens vs public officials. Yet, what happens when a culture of unaccountability takes hold of our society?” What, then, for privacy?
It is hard to say whether the commons will pass the new investigatory powers bill. If they do, the worst can be expected. In an attempt to address this, as well as the issue of having little privacy due to my own actions on social media, I have provided my entire Facebook history to be viewed by the examiner. The marker has the opportunity to browse all of my personal data, excluding my messages (which I deemed to be too personal) for as long as they wish. The piece shows the amount I have already released into the public domain and the ways this can be used to learn things about me. In doing this, the examiner must enter the taped off area. This area, inspired by Carey Young's 'Declared Void' (2003), removes the examiners right to privacy. Put simply, buy entering this area and engaging with the piece, the examiner themselves becomes subject to scrutiny. Is the camera that watches them live streaming to a separate device? Or is it taking pictures at set intervals? This will remain unanswered, but the examiner's right to privacy is lost by entering this area.
The photos below show the taped off area in which the viewer's right to privacy is invalidated. A picture of my notes of other artists I have explored is also shown.