Journalist Adam Tanner to Visit Class on October 1, 2014

Adam Tanner

Adam Tanner, a former Reuters news bureau chief in Belgrade and currently a Fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard, will be visiting our class on Wednesday, October 1, 2014.  Adam blogs on personal data issues for Forbes at  He has written a new book that was just published about how the Las Vegas casino industry has used data mining it its marketing and customer service activities.  Two reviews of his book may be found at the

Wall Street Journal, (review 9/8 “Mr. Tanner’s engaging book is realistic.”) and the  Huffington Post,(review by Don McNay 9/9 “[A] masterpiece…Tanner’s book is one of the best business books written this year; in fact, it is one of the best business books in this century. It reminds me of Joe Nocera’s first book, A Piece of the Action, in that it combines detailed knowledge of his subject matter with an excellent writing style, countless personal interviews and observations of events.”).

Mr. Tanner also will be giving a talk at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, October 2, 2014 at a  Hinckley Forum jointly sponsored by the HIP and the University’s MUSE project.

Students are a bit schizophrenic, and perhaps predictable, when it comes to privacy attitudes and practices

So, what do “typical” first year students at the University of Utah look like in terms of their attitudes and beliefs about privacy and surveillance?  What privacy practices do they follow and how accurate is their knowledge about privacy?

These and other questions were answered when  the 20 students (10 male and 10 female) enrolled in UGS 2260 “Privacy & Surveillance”  anonymously answered a 65 question survey before the first day of class.   What follows is a composite picture of the “average” class member, who we shall call by the androgynous name of “Pat.”

First, some demographics: 

Pat is 18 years of age, is from Utah, will likely major in political science or a science related field and intends to pursue an advanced degree.

Pat is social media savvy, having a Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Vine and Google+ accounts.  However, she does not use Flickr or other photo sharing sites.  Pat has three email addresses and has used an opaque online user name which hides her real name as she believes anonymous speech is an important element of using the internet.  She does not subscribe to any RSS feeds, has never edited a Wikipedia page and is not a blog author, but she does post comments on blogs and online sites.  Pat’s primary source of news comes from social media and  although she sometimes reads online newspapers Pat never reads print newspapers for news.

Pat is also technologically savvy having first received a cell phone when she was 13 years old.   She maintains an online banking account, a frequent shopper digital account, orders and pays for products and services online, uses cloud storage and uses text messaging as the primary means of communicating with her friends when physically apart.  When communicating with her digital dinosaur parents and family she uses the phone.

Pat’s attitudes about privacy.

Pat is “somewhat uncomfortable” with the fact that some internet companies provide free services and in exchange collect personal information about her for advertising purposes , yet she uses such services and is willing to disclose personal information in exchange for the free services. She is only “mildly concerned” about her activities in public spaces being recorded, but believes that if a person takes a photograph of her in a public space that person should obtain her permission before posting it on the web.  Pat is of the strong view that she should be entitled to know what personal information about her is being collected by government and businesses and should also have the right  to delete personal information collected about her.  However, she is not willing to pay to either obtain or delete the information.  Pat views the privacy rights of public and private institutions in a markedly different manner.  She believes public institutions have an obligation to be transparent and have no right of privacy in how they operate.  On the other hand, private organizations have no obligation to be transparent and should have a right of privacy in their operations.  Interestingly, the distinction between public and private institutions does not extend to public and private individuals.  Both individuals, she says, are entitled to privacy in how they conduct their lives.   Pat places a higher value on privacy than institutional or personal security when the two are at odds and strongly believes that healthcare providers should not share her personal information even with other healthcare providers without her consent.

Pat’s privacy practices.

Although Pat believes Congress should enact Do-Not-Track legislation allowing her to opt out of online tracking, she believes it is the user who is primarily responsible for insuring the safe handling of personal information on online sites and networks, not government or the site owner.  Despite this latter view, however,  Pat’s efforts to protect her privacy are somewhat inconsistent and  lax.   She has password protected her mobile device , has modified the default privacy settings on some of her social networking accounts and sometimes turns off the geo-location feature on her phone.  On the other hand, she does not use separate passwords for her online accounts, has not enabled Google’s two-step authentication for her Gmail account, rarely clears her browser history, rarely deletes cookies from her computer and does not encrypt her emails.  She only “sometimes” reads a website’s privacy policy before establishing an account and she has not put a “Google alert” on her name.

Pat’s knowledge about privacy.

Like many people, Pat has several mistaken beliefs about online privacy.  She mistakenly believes that if a website has a privacy policy the site owner may not legally share  her personal information with other companies and must delete such information  on her request.  She does correctly know that a website does not need her permission to share her address and purchase history with the government, but erroneously believes that when she orders a pizza by phone for home delivery the pizza company may not sell her address or phone number to others.  Similarly, she incorrectly believes that when she gives her address and telephone number to the store cashier when making a purchase that the store may not sell that information absent her permission.

Any survey surprises?

Pat’s views and attitudes about privacy mirror the information learned from extensive surveys by the PEW Research Center.   See  Based on a 2013 national survey of persons aged 18-29, PEW concluded , among other things,  that young adults are more willing than older Americans to let companies use their personal data for commercial purposes, but are more skeptical about the government’s acquisition of personal information for purposes of combatting terrorism and better insuring personal safety.

It will be interesting to explore the reasons behind the privacy views of our class during the semester and to see if any views are changed as a result of the class.




Why a real name policy for online comments works best (except when it doesn’t)

The debate about anonymity on the internet has raged since the advent of the internet. The debate usually pits free speech advocates against proponents of civility and accountability with both sides approaching the issue with an all or nothing mentality.  The  past few years, however,  have witnessed a growing trend among website owners to require persons to use their real names in order to post or comment online.  Facebook, YouTube, the Huffington Post and  Quora are just a few of the more notable websites that have recently joined this trend. One commentator has even  advocated a mandatory internet-wide real names policy.  This post identifies the main arguments for and against a real name policy and sets out the authors view as to the proper policy that should be adopted.

  Promoting Civility & Insuring Accountability

Advocates for requiring a person to use their real name (or at least a recognized user name) primarily argue that such a policy raises the level of civility and quality of discourse on the internet, fosters accountability, discourages trolls and abusive posts and provides valuable contextual information for the reader to assess the post.  Persons who are defamed anonymously are often unable to seek judicial relief because the wrongdoers are anonymous.   And, there are numerous example of persons abusing their power and avoiding accountability for what they say by hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.   The poster child for this latter concern was the U.S. Attorney in New Orleans, who was a highly respected attorney and one of the longest serving U.S. Attorneys in the country, but resigned in December of 2012 when it was discovered that two of his top deputies were using the internet to anonymously attack persons their office was investigating.   Another example is the Cleveland, Ohio State Judge who made anonymous comments about several high profile cases that were pending before her and then sued the paper when she was outed.  Recently, the online review site Yelp was ordered by a court to reveal the identities of seven reviewers who posted negative reviews about a prominent local carpet cleaning business in Virginia. The business claims the reviews were false and were not from actual customers, but from competitors.

Slate Senior Editor Emily Bazelonreflects the views of many when she argues that a free democracy is better off when everyone is forced to put their name to their words, noting that online anonymous users are poisoning civil discourse with their vile and defamatory comments, all under the excuse of “free speech.”

  Protecting Whistleblowers & Fostering Free Speech

Proponents of anonymity acknowledge that abuses may sometimes occur, but argue that anonymous speech has along and hallowed tradition in our country and, indeed, enjoys constitutional protection.  Absent anonymity, speech will be unnecessarily chilled, they argue.  How many abused women, whistleblowers and political dissidents will come forward if they must do so using their real names?  Anonymous Facebook and Twitter communications were essential during the Arab Spring protests and anonymity allows victims of domestic violence to rebuild their lives where abusers cannot follow.  In a recent post, David Maas of the Electronic Frontier Foundation identifies 16 different groups of persons who benefit from anonymity besides trolls and political dissidents. Maas argues that anonymity is important to anyone who doesn’t want every facet of their online life tied to a Google search of their name.  He focuses on the free speech promoting aspects of anonymity when he argues ” To suggest anonymity should be forbidden because of troll-noise is just as bad as suggesting a ban on protesting because the only demonstrators you have ever encountered are from the Westboro Baptist Church—the trolls of the picket world.

The website has created a Wiki which compiles a list ofpersons harmed by a real names policy. Some commentators argue that anonymity actually promotes truth and trustworthiness on the internet.

Traditional media, who are struggling to adjust to the online world, have adopted various approaches.  Some newspapers allow anonymous comments, but editors moderate all posts by reserving the right to delete comments that violate the papers posted community guidelines, such as no racist, sexist or personal attacks.  KSL TV follows this approach in its Comments Policy.  This is labor intensive, however, and with the economic challenges traditional media, this approach has lost favor of late. The Salt Lake Tribune allows opaque user names, but you are required to have a real email address in order to open an account which is a prerequisite to posting comments.  Comments are not moderated by Tribune editors, but are subject to being deleted if they violate the Tribune’s terms of use.  Other newspapers permit readers to self police the comments by allowing readers to give a thumbs up or thumbs down on each comment.  If a particular comment receives a certain number of down votes it is removed.  With Facebook’s ubiquity and the ability to log onto a site via Facebook, many newspapers allow a commenter to check in with Facebook and have reported that such a policy has improved the quality of comments.

 Anonymity, But With Potential Accountability

 While it certainly is well within the rights of any website to dictate its own terms of use, I place my thumb on the free speech side of the scale when it comes to anonymous speech.  We unavoidably stifle and restrict free expression when we rule out anonymous statements.  That does not mean that anonymous posters should be given free reign to libel and attack others with impunity; it just means that they have the right to speak anonymously and they must be willing to accept the consequences in the event their identity is discovered.  In today’s increasingly transparent world, it is becoming very difficult to be truly anonymous in the face of a persistent effort to learn someone’s identity.  Moreover, there are existing legal processes that allow a judicially compelled disclosure of identity when certain legal threshold showings are made.  In my view, this regime (allowing initial anonymity with judicially compelled disclosure under certain circumstances) strikes a reasonable balance between the competing interests.