Carnegie Mellon University hosts portraits of privacy
January 12, 2015 12:00 AM
“Privacy means that the thoughts in my brain are locked away. What I know does not have to go into the world, which I put an X over.” By Thomas, age 19.
“Privacy is an illusion” by Briana, age 16.
By Rich Lord / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Privacy is an illusion,” Briana, 16, wrote next to her drawing of a whirlpool sucking in a strand of DNA and a lock with an ominous eye on it.
Hers is one of the more jarring of 175 depictions posted online in Privacy Illustrated, a project of Carnegie Mellon University computing and creativity that researchers unveiled last week. While it includes art submitted by people from kindergarten to senior citizens, some of the most complex images about threats to privacy came from teens.
“Teens actually value privacy a lot, but their threat models are very different from adult threat models,” said Lorrie Faith Cranor, director of CMU’s CyLab Usable Privacy and Security Laboratory, who led Privacy Illustrated.
They are acutely concerned about prying parents, siblings and schoolmates, and worried about a spying government, the art suggests. But they’re less hesitant to give intimate details to the companies that run social networking sites.
“The kids aren’t really thinking through as much as corporations as part of their threat model,” Ms. Cranor said.
She co-directs CMU's unique privacy engineering masters program and sits on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She decided to spend a sabbatical with the school’s Studio for Creative Inquiry, and together she and researchers there crafted a plan.
In the era of Facebook and Twitter, and in the wake of whistleblower Edward Snowden’s disclosures, companies, government, academicians and consumers are all approaching privacy from different vantage points, the researchers knew. Their interests are often at odds, making it tough to craft privacy policies that satisfy everyone.
The project started in classrooms at the Pittsburgh Public Schools and CMU Children’s School. Researchers encouraged conversations about privacy and then handed out the markers. Later they solicited adults, online, for illustrations.
Manya Sleeper, a doctoral student focused on security and privacy, wrote in an email that the project shows “the broad range of concepts people have of privacy. It also shows how these concepts sometimes line up with the concepts in privacy policies and sometimes don’t.”
Teens, they knew, often struggle to balance the ease of digital communication and the privacy perils it can bring. Some settle on questionably effective measures, like laying their lives bare on Facebook, but deactivating the account every night — then reactivating it in the morning, Ms. Cranor said.
“If you trust Facebook not to be keeping records in their archives, then that’s a reasonable approach,” she said.
The teens, identified by first name and age, often illustrated ironic or conflicted feelings about privacy.
Michael, 16, drew a door with a “Do Not Disturb” sign on it, concealing a young person tapping away on a computer while a bound diary lay closed nearby. George, 18, showed that he knew about “incognito mode” on Web browsers, which can thwart tracking.
Others showed that, for good or ill, they were evaluating privacy decisions made by celebrities.
Charlotte, 18, riffed off TV personality Kim Kardashian's exploitation of her own conscious abandonment of privacy, surrounding a depiction of her famed partially nude magazine cover shot with text like “I need attention” and “Who are you?”
Some had taken to heart the debate, spurred by Mr. Snowden, over National Security Agency collection of digital communications.
Jonathan, 17, drew a dark figure tapping into a computer, connected to the NSA logo. A camera with a government seal on one side — surrounded by hashtags including “#StopTheNSA” and “#nobody is safe” — illustrated the concerns of Isaac, 17.
“Our teens are definitely picking up on the broader political issues in our society,” said Abby Marsh, a doctoral student studying under Ms. Cranor. Ms. Marsh, 22, researched teen privacy last year and accompanied Ms. Cranor to the Pittsburgh Science & Technology Academy 6-12 school in Oakland for one of the drawing sessions.
Not on many teen minds, though, was the possibility that colleges would scan their online disclosures, or that companies could comply with government demands for their posts and texts.
“This was something that didn’t seem to register with them yet,” Ms. Marsh said.
Some of the Privacy Illustrated art is incorporated into the researchers’ new, free-to-download book Deep Lab.
The art project goes on, Ms. Cranor said. “We are collecting more of it, and we invite members of the public to submit their drawings to our website.”
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