20 June, 2021
Depression, Devastation and Death
Year 10 Longreach State High School student, Lachie Horne wrote a powerful essay around the consequences of privacy problems ‘The Social Dilemma ignored.’
“The poster with the enormous face gazed from the wall…BIG BROTHER IS WATCHING YOU, the caption beneath it ran…”
This was the reality imagined by author George Orwell in 1948.
His book Nineteen Eighty-Four described a society with no privacy, no secrets, and constant surveillance even in one’s own home.
It may seem hard to believe, but such a reality may be approaching us.
As computers and the internet increase in usage every day, more and more of what we do becomes capable of being watched, monitored, recorded, or published.
The Social Dilemma, a documentary describing social media addiction, data collection, and misinformation, has shed the light on the unethical privacy practices of the world’s largest social media corporations.
However, there’s much more to be concerned about.
Unethical privacy practices are in no way limited to social media networks, with individuals, companies, and governments all violating the privacy of millions every day, sometimes leading to tragic consequences.
A deadly “prank”.
On December 28, 2017, 28-year-old Andrew Finch was at his Wichita, Kansas home with his mother Lisa Finch. At approximately 6:28pm, Finch, who has young two children, heard an unknown sound outside his home.
Stepping out onto the front porch to investigate, Finch encountered several police officers, all armed, ordering him to put his hands in the air.
An officer, who believed Finch had drawn a weapon from his waistband, shot him.
He later died in hospital. His family was forced to leave the home barefoot in the freezing cold and were handcuffed.
Lisa Finch’s granddaughter had to step over her uncle as he laid dying.
What had caused this police response?
Wichita Police had received an emergency call from a man named Ryan.
He claimed he had shot his father in the head, had his family at gunpoint in a closet, had poured gasoline all over the home, and was considering lighting it on fire.
However, officers who searched the home found no shooting victim and no hostages. There was no gunman named “Ryan” and there was no petrol poured all over the house.
As it turns out, the call was a complete hoax. The call was in fact a “swatting” prank (McAllister, 2018); (Darrah, 2018).
Swatting is the act of making a false report to the authorities of an ongoing, critical emergency, with the intent of bringing about large police response.
“Swatters” may have many motives for a swatting call; these could include intimidating a target, retaliating after some sort of dispute, or simply because the swatter enjoys the havoc and disruption caused by a hoax call.
But what does this have to do with privacy? Since an address is needed to cause a police response, swatters must first obtain the target’s address, and this is much easier than many believe.
Addresses are often easily found through online searches. They are published in electoral registers, phone books, property records, and public documents and can easily be searched online.
Companies comb through these records, saving the data of all those listed. They then compile reports on individuals not dissimilar from those compiled by social media companies.
These corporations then publish these reports online, making them available for free or for a fee.
Reports from these companies can include current and historical address information, telephone numbers, relatives, court records, jail records, and more.
With few legal restrictions, companies are free to publish these reports to the world, where they can end up in the hands of “swatters”, stalkers or identity thieves.
The Wichita swatting was in fact caused by a dispute over a game of Call of Duty, which the victims were not even involved in.
The target of the prank had given the swatter an old address.
With such trivial reasons for such a dangerous prank and cases of mistaken identity, it seems almost anyone could become a victim.
It is important to note that in this case, the address was not obtained through these services, however, other cases of hoax calls not resulting in deaths have been aided by information from these sites.
This publication of sensitive personal information by the private sector seems to have gone largely unnoticed by the public.
The Social Dilemma touched on the subject of data collection, but the entities with access to your personal data far exceed social media businesses.
With so many of these data brokers operating today, more public awareness is necessary to achieve change, and The Social Dilemma made no mention of the practices of these organisations, particularly the widespread publication of this data to the world.
The Social Dilemma proved that private businesses cannot be trusted with private information.
They showed the exploitation of user data for advertising revenue perpetrated by social media companies, but governments can surely be trusted with this data.
“We live in fear of the pictures…”
It was October 31, 2006. Christos and Lesli Catsouras were both in a panic.
Their daughter, Nikki, had taken Christos’ Porsche 911 Carrera and sped away from their California home. Christos called 911 as he searched for his daughter, before he witnessed two police cars race past him.
He asked the operator if there had been an accident. “Yes,” the dispatcher replied.
“A Black Porsche.”
Nikki was dead.
She had been driving at around 161km/h when she clipped another car and crashed into a concrete toll booth.
Her body was left horrifically mutilated, her head nearly decapitated.
Her injuries were so gruesome, the coroner refused to allow Christos and Lesli to identify their daughter’s body.
However, their nightmare was only just beginning.
Lesli’s brother, Geoff, received a call from a neighbour, asking if he had “seen the photos?” Photos of Nikki’s body had started circulating through email.
They soon began to appear on the web.
The Catsouras’ soon learned of the situation, discovering the photographs online.
The pictures had been taken by officers of the California Highway Patrol as part of standard procedure.
Two dispatchers for the department—Thomas O'Donnell, 39, and Aaron Reich, 30—had received the photographs through email from other officers.
O’Donnell claimed he had only sent the photos to himself to view them later, whilst Reich had sent the photos to his family and friends in what he claimed was a warning about the dangers of drink driving.
The Catsouras’ desperately tried to halt the spread of the images, hiring lawyers and a reputation management firm to try and take them down.
However, their efforts were not enough, with the photos reaching about 1600 different websites.
With the photos of their dead daughter plastered all over the Internet, the Catsouras family was left devastated.
They were tormented by anonymous users, who sent the images to them through email and set up misleading tribute pages which led to the pictures.
Lesli Catsouras stopped checking her email and she forbid her daughters from using the Internet.
She also began home-schooling her 16- year-old daughter, after other students threatened to confront her with the images.
The family continues to fear happening upon the images and reigniting the devastation that befell them after the death of their daughter (Avila, Whitcraft, & Michels, 2009); (Bennett, 2009).
All this devastation was caused by the leaking of the images by a public servant. Government agencies such as the police often hold incredibly sensitive information on people, with workers such as paramedics and police officers interacting with people in the most vulnerable of circumstances.
With so much sensitive data able to be viewed electronically, often with a few clicks, by so many different people, it is inevitable some decide to share what they see.
The flaws of The Social Dilemma.
The Social Dilemma, released on Netflix in January 2020, was a much-needed documentary.
With the data collection of major social media companies that have gone unnoticed for a long time, its release finally brought light to these practices many were completely oblivious to.
However, the documentary only scratched the surface of internet privacy concerns.
It is evident that not only social media companies have been responsible for privacy violations.
Many other segments of the private and public sector are guilty of similar or even more egregious breaches of user privacy.
The Social Dilemma did address many problems, however, there are many more issues of serious concern, particularly user data being weaponised by individuals, causing some of the most severe consequences to result from violations of privacy.
Incidents in which social media was the primary means of harassing a target were not mentioned in the documentary.
For example, a New York man allegedly used over 100 social media accounts to harass his victim with threats and racial slurs and hacked into her accounts, impersonating her and sending offensive messages (U.S. Attorney’s Office: District of Maryland, 2020).
To evoke change, it is important the public knows about incidents of this kind, as little seems to have changed so far.
For example, the photos of Nikki Catsouras are still widely available on Reddit with only a graphic content warning.
By narrowing the subject of The Social Dilemma down to social media data collection, it fails to evoke more widespread change in the privacy practices of other online services which would resolve many more issues.
The advice of deleting social media accounts to avoid data collection simply isn’t a good enough resolution.
A person need not have a social media account for their privacy to be violated by data brokers or the public sector.
So what is the solution?
It seems that legislative change may be the only way.
It is unrealistic to expect these companies to regulate themselves, especially when much of their profits are derived from data collection. In many ways, the law has not kept pace with the creation of the Internet.
With criminal, civil and privacy laws lagging behind, there are few restrictions in place. Strong privacy legislation is needed in more countries.
Current laws protect computer service providers from liability, even if they are aware of the existence of illegal material on their services, allowing them to host illegal material with little recourse for the victims.
With tragedies like swatting and the Nikki Catsouras controversy, it seems urgent reform is needed if we are to avoid these incidents.
A Nineteen Eighty-Four style future is fast approaching, and it may soon be too late to stop it.