BIG ARTS Talking Points Discusses What the Internet Knows About You

by SC Reporter Reese Holiday

Ian Sherr

Behind a computer and in front of a green screen, Ian Sherr shared with virtual guests the truths about internet privacy. Those truths were not glamorous

“One of the things that I think is really fascinating about privacy is that it’s very hard to talk about this in a way that doesn’t feel too dystopian,” Sherr said to start the lecture. “You’re going to have to excuse me as I go through all this. I will try not to depress you too much, but there is not a lot of great things.”

Sherr’s lecture about internet privacy was held on Thursday through the BIG ARTS lecture series called Talking Points. Sherr, who has done other events for BIG ARTS, is an editor at large for CNET, a media outlet discussing news surrounding the world’s technology. His writing topics consist of discussing the latest in mobile devices, VR, and video games, and has also written for the Wall Street Journal.

Using this knowledge in technology, Sherr knew there wouldn’t be a lot of good news for internet privacy, especially considering how privacy has changed. Sherr said when surveillance through technology first came about, technology users fought for their privacy. Now, with devices being used daily, Sherr said users have taken it as the new normal.

“What’s interesting is that because of all that technology and capability, it’s created this very weird surveillance world that we all live in,” Sherr said. “It happened very gradually over the last 15 years or so. We initially pushed back against it quite a bit, and over time we kind of just got used to it.”

Sherr said this evolution of technology, and the privacy that comes with it, can often be attributed to the genre of science fiction. He said sci-fi is important for culture as it can show how a society changes over time. He added that the genre inspires technology and provided an example from a popular sci-fi show.

“One of the things I think is also really interesting, and something I’ve been thinking about for years, is how sci-fi, and how fiction, has actually thought about technology,” Sherr said. “Technology is actually very much informed by sci-fi. You may have heard that the first flip phones were actually inspired by the Star Trek communicators, and there’s a lot of examples of that.”

Despite some technology being inspired by futuristic television shows, Sherr said the genre can often peer in too closely to the future and show grim realities. One of those grim realities is how companies use technology to peer into the lives of technological users to try and sell their latest product through advertising.

Sherr said while the evolution of technology has brought a lot of good, it also has brought a new invasion of privacy, all in the name of advertising.

“The watching you as you were using technology, all of this was in the name of advertising,” Sherr said. “This was really about helping the ad world to better be able to understand you.”

Sherr said companies do this through the help of sites like Google and Facebook. He said these sites don’t sell information to companies, but rather help them target specific users through the profiles and information that those users have given them.

These include what users provide these sites in their profiles, like on Facebook, as well as things like a user’s IP address, computer type, screen size and the site from which they came from. Sherr said these things may seem insignificant, but it can still provide a lot of information to companies so they can use their ads to target the best user.

“This is stuff you would think doesn’t matter, but it can teach them, for example, if I’m computer savvy,” Sherr said. “All these things they can pull out with that information.”

With this, Sherr said the evolution of technology and internet privacy has all been for the advertising world so companies can make more money. He warned the audience that the reality of their privacy was grim and provided numerous details as to why. He added that with this harsh reality, the basic definition of privacy has changed, and that all has to do with technology.

“The most basic version of privacy is just not letting other people see what you’re doing,” Sherr said. “What I think is really interesting is that the tech industry has really caused that to flip. It’s no longer not just about keeping people from seeing your life, and you being able to stop someone from peering through your window. It’s now that your technology is actually the window into your life, and you don’t know where the door is to lock it.”


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