This Week In Privacy



feature image via Stanza.

Queermos, y’all, it has been a big week for privacy as it relates to our digital lives. Here’s just a few things that happened this week regarding privacy in the digital sphere, starting with the most high-profile:

The NSA’s Bulk Phone Metadata Collection is Illegal

This passed Thursday, a federal appeals court ruled  that the NSA data collection brought to light two years ago by Edward Snowden falls outside the scope of Section 215 of the Patriot Act—and considering how horrifying and seemingly-comprehensive The Patriot Act is, it’s kind of amazing that something could be more horrifying and comprehensive. The data collection won’t stop yet, though—the judges on the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals panel are leaving it to Congress because they’re already debating legislation that will resolve the illegality in one way or another: renew this section, introduce something different it or let it die, basically, by June 1st. I do not have a lot of faith in the outcome of Congress dealing with the NSA, but perhaps I’m being pessimistic.

I also feel like every time I revisit thinking about the NSA phone surveillance, there’s some sort of facet or nuance that I’ve missed before. It makes me wonder what we’re all collectively missing when it comes to how we interact at the intersection of privacy and technology?

Speaking of our new dystopian world full of constant surveillance—


The Nemesis Machine

I first found this on Engadget, watched the Vimeo video and experienced both a high level of anxiety and a curious fascination—even as the digital noises made my breath catch in my chest a bit, I couldn’t close the window or pause the video. I looked up everything on it that I could find.

The installation, by British artist Stanza, is on display at the Arentshuis Bruges Museum until tomorrow. The miniature city reacts to data transmitted from London via a series of environmental and surveillance sensors and seven tiny cameras broadcast visitors’ images onto miniature billboard screens mounted on buildings in the piece. From Stanza’s website:

The data and their interactions – that is, the events occurring in the environment that surrounds and envelops the installation – are translated into the force that brings the electronic city to life by causing movement and change – that is, new events and actions – to occur. In this way the city performs itself in real time through its physical avatar or electronic double: The city performs itself through an-other city. Cause and effect become apparent in a discreet, intuitive manner, when certain events that occur in the real city cause certain other events to occur in its completely different, but seamlessly incorporated, double. The avatar city is not only controlled by the real city in terms of its function and operation, but also utterly dependent upon it for its existence.

This artist, whose paints are data, really gets the anxiety of living in a surveillance and data-collecting age right. I wish I were in Bruges to take a small Saturday sojourn to see the piece live. I’d probably short circuit, so perhaps it’s for the best.

What the Davis Ruling Means for Cell Records

Back to the topic of cell phone records, the Davis ruling in Florida states that smartphone users have no expectation of privacy when data is turned over to a third party. Since in the digital age one almost needs to have technology that transmits things about you to function in the modern business world, this is damn preposterous. It’s also a little unclear—the ruling was made in regards to cell tower records that pinpointed the location of Quartavious Davis over a period of 67 days and then used that location to associate him with a series of Miami robberies. They did this all without a warrant. Originally, the courts decided that there was an expectation of privacy and that a warrant needed to be obtained before seeking that information, but the en banc (more than the regular three-judge panel) hearing disagreed. But does this apply to other third party service providers outside the scope of cellphone records?

While this ruling applies only to Florida, it’s worth noting that courts all over the country are grappling with exactly how to deal with expectation of privacy in a digital age—some may look to this ruling for inspiration or justification (gosh I hope not). Personally, searches require warrants. End of discussion.

Luckily Justice Sotomayor sees it the same way:

As Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in her 2012 concurring opinion in United States v. Jones, an approach that excludes Fourth Amendment protection to digital data stored with others is “ill suited to the digital age, in which people reveal a great deal of information about themselves to third parties in the course of carrying out mundane tasks.” More fundamentally, she noted that it was time to stop treating “secrecy as a prerequisite for privacy.”


Redacted: A New App on the Scene


Launched on May 5th, this Mac app makes it easy to blur, black bar and pixelate sensitive information off of images. Sure, other photo editing software can do that, but this pared-down set of privacy-focused tools only costs $4.99—definitely less expensive than other, heavier  photo editing software and a lot more professional-looking than, say, me scribbling things out using Skitch. But the real story is how I stumbled upon this app—there’s a hilarious posting about how little it takes to break onto the top paid apps list in the Mac app store that’s worth a look. This app made it with only $302 in profit.

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A.E. Osworth

A.E. Osworth is part-time Faculty at The New School, where they teach undergraduates the art of digital storytelling. Their novel, We Are Watching Eliza Bright, about a game developer dealing with harassment (and narrated collectively by a fictional subreddit), is forthcoming from Grand Central Publishing (April 2021) and is available for pre-order now. They have an eight-year freelancing career and you can find their work on Autostraddle (where they used to be the Geekery Editor), Guernica, Quartz, Electric Lit, Paper Darts, Mashable, and drDoctor, among others.

A.E. has written 542 articles for us.


  1. In related news, Germany’s three letter intelligence agency has limited its cooperation with the NSA drastically this week, cutting them off from the internet data entirely after the NSA used the gathered intelligence to spy on…European politicians, governments and possibly economically vital data.(There was a scandal a while back, when the NSA hacked our chancellor’s personal phone, btw.)
    Our intelligence agency then asked the NSA to provide reasons for the individual subjects they meant to keep spying on (to justify the breach of privacy), which the NSA was unable to provide on “such short notice”.
    Knowledge is power and absolute power corrupts absolutely…what I’m saying is, that you guys really need some decent legislation.
    A well funded discussion on the right to privacy in a digital age is a good way to get there.
    Is privacy a human right? How can it be respected and protected in our digital world?
    And even gathered for the purpose of commerce and anonymized, what does it say about us if we grow to only matter as a collection of computed algorhythms?
    All very interesting questions,indeed. Most of them already explored in the science fiction of decades past…

  2. The Nemesis Machine reminds me so strongly of Simulacron-3 (and the German film Welt am Draht which is an excellent adaptation of it). AI isn’t advanced enough yet to make that a reality, but I’ll be damned if that’s not a scary precedent.

  3. I’ve been thinking that maybe the end of privacy might actually be a good thing. Why do we care about privacy in the first place? Because we’re afraid of being negatively judged by others. But when everyone knows everything about everyone,it will force people to accept people for who they are.

    Privacy is a fairly recent development. For most of human history people lived in single room dwellings alongside multiple families.

    We’ve fallen into this trap where we can present this idealized stick figure to the world at the price of keeping our true selves hidden, but because everyone else can do the same thing no one actually gains any advantage. Ending privacy might just be a hugely liberating change.

    Or maybe I’m just being too meta contrarian.

    • It’s not just about privacy though. There’s a huge difference between your neighbor knowing everything about you and a government agency. The difference is power.

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