Privacy in the Internet Age: An Interview With 'The Identity Trade' Author Nora Draper

By JP O Malley on at

To understand the paradoxical complexity running through the rather complicated affair that is internet privacy it's worth for a moment returning to 2013: the year that not only saw the exposé of the Edward Snowden/ PRISM scandal, but which also witnessed two seemingly opposing words – privacy and selfie – become the year's most prevalent phrases.

Both words raising their heads side-by-side with such prominence in the global public domain in less than 12 months raises a rather pertinent question: how can a global society that almost obsessively encourages self-promotion and information sharing, simultaneously be preoccupied with anxieties about overexposure and unwanted observation?

It's the first thing I put to Assistant Professor of Communication at the University of New Hampshire in the United States, Nora Draper, when we begin chatting.

“What we are increasingly seeing from a mass culture perspective is that privacy isn't conceived of in terms of anonymity,” says the American academic, who specialises in how identity, gender, race, class, and sexuality all shape experiences of privacy, surveillance, and visibility in the digital world.

“The notion that the internet is a place where nobody knows who you are – or nobody wants their name or identity associated with what they are doing – [is gone],” Draper adds. “All that changed with the rise of social media.”

Draper is speaking passionately about the murky world of online privacy because she has recently published a book about it. The Identity Trade scrupulously examines the complex relationship between online visibility, privacy, and the politics of identity and self preservation in the digital age: particularly focusing its attention on the struggle between efforts to control the circulation of personal information, and the paradoxical demand that information be shared almost as an absolutist precondition for active participation in the online world.

Through a mix of in depth interviews with industry experts from the privacy industry – as well a close analysis of media coverage and government policies on privacy more broadly – Draper's latest book focuses much of its attention on how companies have turned the protection of digital information into big business. Mostly, though, without the prior knowledge of customers.

Indeed much of the content we view online in our day-to-day lives is merely the implementation of what Draper calls surveillance capitalism: a form of information capitalism that aims to predict and modify human behaviour as a means to produce revenue and market control. Draper cites Facebook's experiment with sponsored adverts as being emblematic of this practice in action. 

“Surveillance has always been a part of capitalism,” Draper explains. “But this new interest in surveillance capitalism reflects how digital technologies have really entrenched some of these practices around surveillance.”

As technology continues to blur the boundaries between the public and private self, Draper believes questions about who controls our online selves have become much more complex and difficult to pin point with precise exactitude.

Draper cites the social theorist, Anthony Giddens, who described the late modern self as a reflective project – where one's narrative biography is articulated, revised, and signalled to others through the adaptation of a cohesive set of practices called lifestyles. The freedom to select between these lifestyles provides individuals with a range of options through which they can reconstruct their own biographies and identities.

Although, as Draper is keen to stress, that freedom comes with a price.

“In the early years of the web there was this idea that people were going to be able to leave their bodies behind, and everybody would be able to be whoever they wanted to be online, irrespective of the world they experienced offline,” Draper explains. “But that notion of an identity [separate] from the body – a sort of digital identity – hasn't really come true.”

Individuals are thus beginning to think of identity in much more strategic terms – almost like a life-long online project: where they are always conscious about what their digital footprint will look like.

Draper points to examples of individuals creating fake online public versions of their own identity so that they can have anonymous spaces that allows them to engage with their friends, without feeling like they are being publicly watched and analysed with every social encounter they make in the cyber world.

“One of the points that repeatedly comes up with privacy is this notion of control,” Draper explains, “that we have control over what people can know about us, or the extent to which they can access information about us.”

“Increasingly, however, people feel that form of privacy as a form of control is slipping away,” Draper adds. “So we are reaching a stage where people still want control, but feel like the ways in which they are expected to engage with technologies makes that really difficult.”

Those difficulties, in turn, are leading to huge anxieties on a global level, Draper stresses.

“There is anxiety [connected] to fears about making the wrong choice about what we want to share about ourselves online,” Draper explains. “Especially when we feel like we have lost a sense of control – either through an image of ourselves, in our reputation online[more broadly], or in the ways in which our personal data can be used.”

“It's an illusion to say that we have full control over our identities and our privacy,” Draper adds, “and when we think about privacy purely as a function of control, it puts a lot of pressure for people to manage their identities and data flows in ways that might not be possible.”

This then leads us to a conversation connected to the central focus of Draper's book: the notion that privacy ought to be viewed as a function of personal choice or consumer freedom. Draper refers to this concept as the illusion of voluntariness – where the presentation of choices around online privacy somehow gives the illusion of feeling empowered, without actually offering us any legitimate options for avoiding persistent surveillance in return.

“We constantly feel like because we are changing our privacy settings, we are making the best decisions for ourselves[about privacy],” Draper explains. “And we are[subsequently] being told that we are being empowered, but actually, there is a lot going on that undermines that idea of empowerment.”

This do-it-yourself approach to online privacy can often feel like getting lost down a Kafkaesque-like revolving corridor that leads to nowhere in particular, and where an inexplicable feeling of self paralysis traps the individual.

But Draper says those uneasy feelings of confusion, helplessness, anxiety, and alienation aren't coincidental; reflecting a narrative far more complex than an individual being lost amidst a maelstrom of technical jargon they cannot understand. This collective-mass-confusion is rooted in recent political history.

More specifically, in the rightward shift that has taken place across the socio-economic-political landscape in the West over the last three decades. It's been primarily driven, Draper argues, by two main ideas: techno fundamentalism and free market neoliberalism.

“Techno-fundamentalism is this idea that technology will solve the problems created by technology, and that we don't necessarily need new laws or regulations,” Draper explains.

Free market neoliberalism, meanwhile, can be described as a radical form of individualism that aims to smash social democracy; favouring instead an almost religious-like creed of free markets, deregulation, and limited government. A central belief embedded in neoliberal ideology is to convince the individual citizen and consumer that they need to take personal responsibility for almost all facets of their life because life is  merely a series of endless transactions where everything becomes a process of commodification.

Draper says this consistent trend in the online privacy industry towards commodification closely parallels the trajectory of the environmental movement during the 1980s and 1990s. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, environmentalists focused on the combined efforts of government and industry as a catalyst for changing the unsustainable environmental policies and practices wreaking havoc on the planet. During the 1980s, however, as neoliberal policies gained much more traction, a greater emphasis was placed on the individual responsibility of protecting the environment.

It's a perspective, Draper stresses, which asks the individual to imagine themselves as a consumer first and citizen second. Even if an individual takes personal responsibility to protect their privacy, Draper believes giant tech companies are still in the driving seat when it comes to guiding how individuals think about – and control – their own privacy.

“If you decide to delete Facebook, for example, but you are still using WhatsApp or Instagram, you are still tied into the Facebook eco system,” Draper points out. “Or look at the fairly recent decision by Apple to take apps from Google and Facebook  off its platform because they weren't following [its privacy] policy, and yet [Apple] still continues to allow Apps that collect personal information.”

That is not to say that individual actions are irrelevant, or that they don't have an impact, Draper stresses.  “But when thinking about how far those various strategies can go, there are limits if we don't have the corresponding shifts in regulatory infrastructure that really put pressure on companies, on organisations, or on governments, to change practices,”Draper adds.

What direction, then, will the future of online privacy take in the coming years and decades? Draper believes it's a road tied up as much in cultural trends and social mores as it is in regulatory practices and legalities. The academic notes that we'll soon get a point in society where a decision not to share online will be seen as anti-social.

“All of the anxieties we see in society today are tied to social privacy,” Draper explains. “And the extent to which people will conduct a data revolution – where they rise up and use their data [to protect their privacy] – remains to be seen."

“We are seeing some regulation in these areas,” Draper points out.

Here Draper cites two specific pieces of legislation(both in the EU and the United States) that were sped up last year in the wake of the The Facebook/Cambridge Analytica data scandal: the European Union's General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into force across the EU last May and, the California Data Privacy Protection Act (which comes into effect in 2020).

“Such legislation allows people to get access to what information is being collected about them,” says Draper, ”where consent is much more central as an idea.”

“I do hope we can see more interventions in these areas, and that people are given more of an opportunity to see what is going on[about their online privacy],” says Draper, “But it's an illusion to say that we have full control over our identities online, and for the most part we probably never have.