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Does Privacy Exist in the Digital Age?

Geo-caching Twitter users become subject for artists

By Lara de Alba

Feb. 17, 2011

Be careful what privacy settings you have on your social networking accounts; your status updates may become someone’s masterpiece, and they could end up anywhere.

The Cleveland State Art Gallery is currently showing an exhibit that raises the issue of privacy in the digital age, titled “Life Imitates Artifice.”

One of the exhibits, “Geolocation: Tributes to the Data Stream,” was created by Nate Larson and Marni Shindelman. The work uses status updates from the social networking website Twitter which the artists found to be particularly compelling.

Utilizing the geotag information that users can opt to have on their account, the users are tracked through their GPS coordinates. Larson and Shindelman travelled to the physical location of the tweet and took a photograph of that location, then paired the image with the text. The photographs are on display in Gallery C.

There is no doubt that technology has revolutionized our way of communicating. In the pursuit to relate the virtual and physical realms and understand what this says about our world today, Nate Larson believes that in the virtual universe, we can feel as though we are on a personal level with strangers because we are following their daily activities. “We imagine ourselves as virtual flâneurs, ethnographers of the Internet, exploring cities 140 characters at a time through the lives of others,” says Larson.

He also believes the heightened amount of digital noise is a result of what is known as ambient awareness. According to the New York Times article by Clive Thompson, “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy, September 7, 2008,” “[Ambient awareness] is. . . very much like being physically near someone and picking up on his mood through the little things he does — body language, sighs, stray comments — out of the corner of your eye.”

Larson and Shindelman have not met any of the actual people whose tweets they used, nor have they received any feedback in response to their work by the users. The artists regard their work as a tribute to those ephemeral tweets, which were impressionable to them but would otherwise be lost in the vastness of the internet. “We hope that these photographs honor that person’s experience and that they would feel that someone had listened to them,” Larson said.

The questions this type of exhibit raises about our society are endless. What does privacy mean in the digital age? How much information is too much information?

Some would argue that while the users themselves are revealing too much information by allowing their locations to be tracked, it is still an invasion of privacy to go so far as to travel to someone’s home to photograph it and market it as art.

“There should be a limit, and this is crossing that limit,” says Rany Zeitoune, a CSU chemical engineering graduate student. “Going to someone’s home is going too far because to me, a home represents privacy.”

Other CSU students believe that if you are willing to post something on the internet, it should not come as a surprise that someone would track your location.

“If you post it on the internet, it’s fair game,” says Amanda Duncan, a junior journalism major. “If you don’t want it out there, then don’t post it.”

“Don’t tweet if you don’t want people to know where you are,” agrees Ally Miga, a senior communication major.

According to the Twitter Help Center, users must opt-in to have the location feature added to individual posts, and is off by default. Locations can only be added to new tweets, not tweets that have already been posted.

This publicly shared information can be either a place, such as a city or town, or the exact location through GPS coordinates. Past location data can be cleared permanently, but Twitter advises using caution for how much information is shared online.

As for storing the information, Twitter stores the GPS coordinates for six months to determine a location even if they are not used. The Help Center strongly advises, “Just like you might not want to tweet your home address, please be cautious in tweeting coordinates you don’t want others to see.”