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Internet Privacy Does Not Exist

The illusion of privacy allows people to do things online, both good and bad, that they wouldn’t do in real life. Occasionally, real life finds out about it.

A couple of very different stories remind us how devastating the illusion of privacy can be. On Friday, Gawker’s Adrian Chen published a piece exposing and profiling a Redditer known as Violentacrez, whom he terms “the biggest troll on the Web.”

 If you are capable of being offended, Brutsch has almost certainly done something that would offend you, then did his best to rub your face in it. His speciality is distributing images of scantily-clad underage girls, but as Violentacrez he also issued an unending fountain of racism, porn, gore, misogyny, incest, and exotic abominations yet unnamed, all on the sprawling online community Reddit. At the time I called Brutsch, his latest project was moderating a new section of Reddit where users posted covert photos they had taken of women in public, usually close-ups of their asses or breasts, for a voyeuristic sexual thrill. It was called “Creepshots.” Now Brutsch was the one feeling exposed and it didn’t suit him very well.

But Michael Brutsch is more than a monster. Online, Violentacrez has been one of Reddit’s most reviled characters but also one of its most beloved users. The self-described “creepy uncle of Reddit” has played a little-known but crucial role in Reddit’s development into the online juggernaut it is today. In real life, Brutsch is a military father and cat-lover. He lives with his wife in the Dallas suburb of Arlington, Texas. There are many sides to Violentacrez, and now that I had Michael Brutsch on the phone I hoped to find out where the troll ended and the real person began.

On the other end of the spectrum, WSJ’s Geoffrey A. Fowler reports on two gay UT Austin students who were inadvertently outed to their intolerant fathers on Facebook.

Bobbi Duncan desperately wanted her father not to know she is lesbian. Facebook told him anyway.

One evening last fall, the president of the Queer Chorus, a choir group she had recently joined, inadvertently exposed Ms. Duncan’s sexuality to her nearly 200 Facebook friends, including her father, by adding her to a Facebook Inc. discussion group. That night, Ms. Duncan’s father left vitriolic messages on her phone, demanding she renounce same-sex relationships, she says, and threatening to sever family ties.

The 22-year-old cried all night on a friend’s couch. “I felt like someone had hit me in the stomach with a bat,” she says.

Soon, she learned that another choir member, Taylor McCormick, had been outed the very same way, upsetting his world as well.

The president of the chorus, a student organization at the University of Texas campus here, had added Ms. Duncan and Mr. McCormick to the choir’s Facebook group. The president didn’t know the software would automatically tell their Facebook friends that they were now members of the chorus.

The two students were casualties of a privacy loophole on Facebook—the fact that anyone can be added to a group by a friend without their approval. As a result, the two lost control over their secrets, even though both were sophisticated users who had attempted to use Facebook’s privacy settings to shield some of their activities from their parents.

In the first instance, a bad person is likely to have his real life–including his ability to make a living–upended by the conscious act of a reporter. In the second, two young people who did nothing more than join a school club had their biggest secret exposed by a well-meaning person who made the mistake of trusting Facebook, a data mining company that makes billions by getting people to give them their personal information.

In the case of Brutsch, it’s hard to feel much sympathy. While it’s quite possible that everything he did was legal, most of his online activity is despicable and possibly ruinous to others. I’m seldom on the same side as Amanda Marcotte on matters in controversy but the notion that there’s such a thing a “non-consensual porn” is disgusting and those who create it should be ostracized.

That said, there are plenty of people—including commenters on this site—who use pseudonyms for perfectly benign reasons and contribute positively to Reddit, blogs, Gawker, and other online communities. Maybe they don’t want their neighbors to know they’re gay. Or don’t want their boss to know they’re members of a different political party than they are. They’re just as easy to track down  as Brutsch and there’s no moral bright line between exposing postings that are obviously malicious and those that are merely embarrassing or inconvenient.

I’ve been active online now since the mid-1990s and have, by virtue of this blog, been a very minor online public figure for almost a decade. For a variety of reasons, including the fact that my professional career is one that encourages writing and publishing, I’ve done virtually all of my online activity under my real life name. As such, I’ve long been aware that my family, friends, co-workers, bosses, and prospective employers might read everything that I put out there. That’s the safest way to operate online, in that it avoids the sort of disruptive surprises that Brutsch, Duncan, and McCormick received. But it also means, inevitably, that there’s a subtle filter that makes me more cautious than I might otherwise be. That’s likely both good and bad in my own case.

But I continue to worry about what it means for a younger generation, for whom Facebook and other social networks are part and parcel of their everyday existence from their teenage years forward. By the time the Internet was a public phenomenon, I was a grown man with a PhD.  I would hate to live in a world where every dumb ass thing I did from 13 to 30 would be captured forever for those who Googled my name.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    It’s always good to cite Sun founder Scott McNeally who gave early warning:

    In 1999, Stephen Manes quoted McNealy as saying, “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” Manes criticized the statement in his Full Disclosure column: “He’s right on the facts, wrong on the attitude. … Instead of ‘getting over it’, citizens need to demand clear rules on privacy, security, and confidentiality.”The authors of Privacy in the 21st Century admitted, “While a shocking statement, there is an element of truth in it.”

    The argument, whether we accept it or demand rules, continues.

    Apparently those college students, certainly of the internet generation, thought they had manageable rules …

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  2. DC Loser says:

    I still operate by the Washington Post rule. I don’t post anything online under my name or pseudonym that I don’t want to be seen on the front page of the WaPo.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  3. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: I put 99% of that particular one on Facebook. But I think Mannes is more wrong than right: Minus Facebook, there’s virtually no chance of dad finding out about membership in a school club.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  4. john personna says:

    @James Joyner:

    I’m not sure Manes wins, but I think it is the good fight.

    Basically a zero-privacy internet takes us “back” to the model of a very gossipy small town, where everyone knows everyone else’s business.

    Except, gossip was never a high morality, was it?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  5. john personna says:

    BTW, related:

    Campaigns Mine Personal Lives to Get Out Vote

    The callers will be guided by scripts and call lists compiled by people — or computers — with access to details like whether voters may have visited pornography Web sites, have homes in foreclosure, are more prone to drink Michelob Ultra than Corona or have gay friends or enjoy expensive vacations.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. ernieyeball says:

    I have always assumed that anything I posted on the Internet, whether or not I use an alias, can be traced back to the real me some way, somehow.
    I would like to think that security and privacy are two different things.
    Upon reading “…HTTP is insecure and is subject to man-in-the-middle and eavesdropping attacks, which can let attackers gain access to website accounts and sensitive information. HTTPS is designed to withstand such attacks and is considered secure against such attacks…” on Wikip’s post about HTTP vs HTTPS, I’m not so sure.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/HTTP_Secure

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  7. john personna says:

    @ernieyeball:

    The internet runs on numeric addresses. They are broadly “permanent” or “dynamic,” but even the dynamic ones can be long-lived. If you are at home with a cable modem or dsl, you have an address that tracks straight to your household. You can’t get more “known” than that.

    It is part of the packet sent on every web page request, it must be, for the page to be sent back to you, as in a self-addressed stamped envelope.

    If you really wanted anonymity, you’d need to find an internet cafe that accepted cash, and then use a whole separate user profile while there. You’d really want to use a whole separate profile there, because those places are renowned for hacking your data.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  8. PJ says:

    @James Joyner:

    I would hate to live in a world where every dumb ass thing I did from 13 to 30 would be captured forever for those who Googled my name.

    While I agree, I would argue that such a world would also mean that we would end up stop caring about things people had done in their youth, because we would have to.
    The ones who would have problems in such a world would be the squeaky clean.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  9. john personna says:

    This site, “what is my ip address” does a pretty good job of pinning down exactly where I am. I’m not sure of the OTB principles have ever done it on me, but they certainly could. Their discretion is highly appreciated.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  10. James Joyner says:

    @john personna: The only thing I’ve used IP addresses, which I do in fact have access to, for is to see whether two pseudonyms are the same IRL individual.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  11. john personna says:

    I wouldn’t mind if you did it for your own amusement, but it does illustrate that some rules and expectations of privacy remain. If, for instance, some website started putting geo-location on every comment, it would freak everyone out pretty badly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  12. James in LA says:

    This appears to be a temporary annoyance. The internet is only a “problem” for those who want to control information in the digital age, and let’s just herd cats, why not?

    In response to the erosion of our First Amendment come meshnets, private secure peer-to-peer networks that rely on existing “phone” technology. As more and more devices join the 4G cloud, the cloud itself grows larger by the hour, even as individual devices come and go. You hop-scotch across this cloud to get to your content. bypassing the increasingly dangerous ISPs. Any Android device can form a small cloud of 4 – 6 devices, throttled by the carrier. The phone can actually support hundreds, if not thousands, of connections. They are very advanced devices these days.

    Government cannot win this because most elected pols still hail from the age of newspapers and cannot possibly keep up. Their brains will never give up the idea they can control other people with information. It is up to the rest of us to bypass this cancer without losing our American selves.

    https://projectmeshnet.org/

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  13. john personna says:

    Doh, I really planned of fixing principles/principals before submitting that last one.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  14. ernieyeball says:

    @PJ: The ones who would have problems in such a world would be the squeaky clean.

    That would be Jesus and…….who else???

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  15. PJ says:

    @ernieyeball:
    I doubt that there would be a lot of them, but if there was a candidate without any kind of regrets from his or her youth, people would start to ask.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. al-Ameda says:

    God bless the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but I honestly believe that unless you go completely off the electronic-digital grid you have almost no chance of maintaining anything close to the older analog type of privacy. Even then I doubt it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  17. michael reynolds says:

    The What Is My IP site has me in San Rafael. I categorically deny that I live in San Rafael and I’m insulted by the suggestion.

    The end game I think is a fairly transparent world where we can expect to see everyone’s name, location, embarrassing photos, credit report, porn preferences etc… So what? If everyone is equally exposed then exposure means very little. No one lives a blameless life, no one gets through this life without some embarrassing stuff.

    Society will mature a bit and come to a more tolerant position. Real outliers — like Mr. Brutsch — will have problems. But if we all stopped freaking out over irrelevant bullsh!t we could quickly get past the fact that the next executive VP or teacher or congressman likes to look at naked women and is a month late on the mortgage and was once photographed sh!tfaced in Tijuana.

    It’s only a problem if some portion of the population manages to conceal their own behavior and claim a hypocritical superiority.

    This is why the younger generation is not wrong to be more open online. This is a generational thing. The next gen won’t have the option of hypocrisy. Everyone will have something embarrassing online.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  18. Michael,

    Some IP detection tools place me in Blacksburg, Virginia which is 214 miles southwest of me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. al-Ameda says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    @michael reynolds:
    Some IP detection tools place me in Santa Clara or Cupertino (for all of you conspiracy mavens, that’s home to Apple), each of those places are about 90 to 100 miles south of my home.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. Janis Gore says:

    @michael reynolds: Great observation, Michael.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  21. Franklin says:

    @michael reynolds: You have some interesting thoughts here, but I’m still nervous about the end of privacy (perhaps because I’m not part of that young generation). Health records? All money transactions? The problem is that both government and private enterprise will find a way to abuse the power to know everything about everybody.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  22. Liberty60 says:

    I Googled myself once.

    Turns out my real name actually is the same as a famous gay porn star.

    On one hand, I am nervous the HR department at work may get confused and think I have a moonlighting job in the entertainment industry.
    On the other hand, it would be kinda cool if everyone thought I was as good looking as the other guy.

    I’m considering just legally changing my name to Liberty60.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0