Information and Privacy in the Global Digital Age

 “Privacy” and anonymity online – is there any? These days, most of us are so accustomed to being tracked one way or another – including by our smartphones, health-tracking devices, GPS-equipped digital cameras, etc. – that we may not give any of this a second thought. Whether for managing our health, finding our way in a new place via Google maps, or keeping track of our children or partners – having our rather precise physical location constantly monitored and known to at least selected apps makes contemporary life more convenient, healthier, and safer.

Mostly. Many of these apps can also be used for darker purposes, starting with various forms of stalking, harassment, and worse. And there are times and circumstances in which we very much want to protect our identity and locational privacy. Constant tracking – ramped up in recent years with the rise of so-called smart assistants (Alexa, Siri, Google Voice, etc.) – for the sake of selling our data, feeding us advertisements, or serving up the next shopping or music recommendations can sometimes be more irritating and creepy, if not downright scary, than helpful.

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Specifically, receiving death threats from those who vehemently disagree with us politically or ideologically is no laughing matter. Such attacks – dramatically exemplified in the “#Gamergate” controversies, beginning in 2014 – have become more extensive and more prominent, in part as they can be easily organized through any number of anonymous and pseudo-anonymous communication venues such as Reddit, 4Chan, and others. In #Gamergate, primarily women – including “female and minority game developers, journalists, and critics” (Massanari 2017, 330) – were targeted with “doxxing,” i.e., collecting and then publishing online personal information such as home addresses and phone numbers, followed by ongoing campaigns of rape- and death-threats (Massanari 2017, 333– 4. Such attacks are now increasingly common for politicians and other public figures, whatever their political or ideological affiliation. Such events – along with the Snowden revelations – have made it painfully clear that privacy is increasingly difficult to sustain in an “always on” digital era.

In order to get a better understanding of how online communication works – in part, so as to develop a better sense of how such communication can be protected when needed – let’s play a bit with good old-fashioned email (still one of the primary and most widely used applications of the internet). The goal here is to see how much information your email contains about you that is essentially open and public – and to reflect on how far you may prefer that some of this information remain private.

To begin with: most email clients (i.e., the software packages such as Outlook, [Apple] Mail, and Thunderbird) are set to show users only the basic contents of an email: sender, recipient, cc’s, subject line, and email body. But look again: these clients also allow you to review the complete contents of your email. In current versions of Thunderbird, for example, after selecting a given message, go to the “View” menu and then click on the option “Message Source.”