You are viewing a read-only archive of the Blogs.Harvard network. Learn more.

Going Loca: Privacy in a digital world

As more and more of our lives become enmeshed in the digital world, more and more of our lives are detected, stored, and compiled by the digital systems that serve us. As we call friends on cell phones, navigate streets with GPS systems, login to Facebook from our notebooks, and swipe our employer IDs at cafeteria cashiers, bits of data are collected about us, stored, and compiled in various databases, owned by diverse entities. This collection of digital tracks that we leave behind add up to form our digital dossier.

Compiled all together, this data can say a lot about us. But who has access to this data? How is it collected, and how is it stored? And what rights do you have over your own data? These are important questions to ask – especially for Digital Natives, who are leaving digital tracks from birth, compiling a digital dossier vaster and more detailed than any generation that has come before.

What does this mean for Digital Natives? What does this mean for the future?

Our research indicates that Digital Natives are often unaware of the data that is being collected about them, and what this means for their privacy. The young people we talked to that were aware of privacy concerns often became so after a “learning moment” – something happened to them that made them uncomfortable, and think twice about their privacy online.

Learning by error can work, but it can also be costly. How do we teach youth (and adults, for that matter) to be aware of the data that is being collected about them, to be wary of privacy issues, and to become informed actors in the debate over the ever growing market of information in our new digital world? This is a question we grapple with here at the Digital Natives project, and at the Berkman Center more widely.

A group of designers – John Evans, Drew Hemment, Theo Humphries, and Mike Raento – have come up with one interesting way. They’ve designed a grass roots surveillance system called Loca.

Loca aims to enable people to question the networks they populate, and to expose the disconnect between people and the trails of digital identities they leave behind.

The creators of Loca used old mobile phones to create a monitoring system that tracks all mobile phone users in the vicinity that have their Bluetooth set to discoverable. The system collects data on individuals’ whereabouts, tracking users’ movements, and sending users messages in response to knowledge of their whereabouts. Individuals in the area with mobile phones, without doing anything, receive messages such as:

We have seen you here five times in the last three days.


You spent 30 minutes in the park and then walked past the flower stall. Are you in love?

After such a message spooks a user, it then challenges people to think. Users also receive a message indicating the whereabouts of the Loca headquarters, where they can scan their mobile phone and receive a printout of the every time and location where the system detected them, providing a physical manifestation of the surveillance of their movements.

As the Loca video below explains,

Messages sent to users make the presence of the network know, and illustrate the types of data that can be gathered, and the inferences that can be drawn from it…[Loca] aims to raise awareness of the networks we inhabit, and provoke people to questioning them.

Loca brings up interesting questions for users who were tracked in San Jose, California at ISEA2006. But what about those of us who will never encounter this provocative system? Reading privacy agreements is boring, and can be very confusing. How can we bring awareness to the privacy issues raised by our ever growing digital dossier – and encourage people to think critically – in fun and educational ways?

Living in a digital world makes many things more convenient, available, and even simply possible to achieve. But often, the very tool that makes something good – like mobile activism – possible, also raises concerns in other areas, like privacy. Privacy laws need to safeguard the individuals whose data is being collected. But individuals – especially Digital Natives, who are growing up in a digital world, and will come to lead us into our digital future – need to take an active role in the formation of a society that deals with information and privacy in a responsible and human-centered way. The first step in addressing the issues of information collection, retention, and sharing – and the concern for the future of privacy – is by raising awareness.

– Miriam Simun

[kml_flashembed movie="" width="425" height="350" wmode="transparent" /]