Merritt discusses privacy during Internet Age for Mass Comm Week

Pictured above are a handful of the faculty, students and attendees who listened to Tom Merritt (third from left) present about privacy invasion. Merritt is an award-winning podcaster from Los Angeles who served as Mass Comm Week keynote speaker. Photo by Theresa San Luis

Award-winning podcaster Tom Merritt explored the notion that privacy is “declared dead” during the 44th Mass Comm Week keynote address last week.

Privacy is not “dying as fast as we think,” according to Merritt, even though the news is full of “revelations,” such as how the National Security Agency collected phone records of millions of Verizon customers.

“[News about privacy] were daily at the beginning and then they were weekly. We would hear about the surveillance court, we would hear about spying rules and we would hear about taps on fiber-optic cables,” Merritt said.

Merritt referred to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg who told The Guardian that in the Internet Age, “People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.”

Merritt referenced Sun Microsystems CEO Scott McNealy in 1999 who once stated, “You have zero privacy anyway…Get over it.”

Government and corporations can invade people’s privacy, Merritt said, and two types of privacy changes are “voluntary” and “involuntary.”

According to Merritt, there is a “slow-moving voluntary surrender” of privacy when people register to use such websites as Facebook, Google or Apple services as “data is given over.”

“I don’t think it’s nefarious in all cases…” Merritt said, “but what’s dangerous about it for sure is that we actually don’t know all the implications of giving all this privacy away.”

Merritt said involuntary invasion in “most cases is a potential invasion of privacy” and has become an issue within the last 10 years.

An example, according to Merritt, includes cookies or files that the Internet browser set can track. An anonymous session of an Internet user “leaves a trail,” such as websites visited.

“That trail that you leave, even if you’re saying, ‘Oh, I’m giving only a little bit of information, I’m not giving my name, I’m not giving my social security number’– that can be tracked,” Merritt said.

Yet, according to Merritt, efforts to counter privacy invasion are applied by tools like Safeplug and organizations such as “Dark Mail Alliance,” which protects emails from surveillance.

“Just as we have more tools to spy on people, we actually have more tools to protect ourselves and this is inspiring people to develop better tools to protect ourselves,” Merritt said. “It’s not only that we are actually having a debate on that–we are taking it seriously…”

Mass communications professor Musonda Kapatamoyo who coordinated this year’s event, said the keynote address was relevant considering the scale of surveillance by governments and corporations.

“The fact that people self-report their private information for the most part makes it attractive or even easy for collectors to gather that data,” Kaptamoyo said. The data is then used for all sorts of things.”

According to Kapatamoyo, such discussion should happen more often and that students were engaged, asking important questions.

“That gives me hope that they are thinking about this issue. Hopefully, within their power they can change some aspects of surveillance and privacy,” Kapatamoyo said.

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