Last week, I stunned a University librarian. I was at a training session for Zotero, a trademarked software tool that creates citations for online material and works best with Google Chrome. I confessed to her that I do not use Chrome because I worry about Google’s collection of user data. Instead, I use Firefox, a browser that many consider outdated. To limit the data I hemorrhage into the electronic world, I conduct online searches using Duck Duck Go, a search engine that neither collects nor shares user information. Flummoxed, she declared, “If you want privacy, don’t use the internet.”
She raised a valid point: If I really wanted to keep my identity secret, I would not maintain an online presence. Despite my recent adoption of Duck Duck Go, I have already forfeited a good deal of personal information by searching on the Internet, establishing online accounts, and making digital purchases.
The University librarians are an invaluable resource for students. I do not intend to criticize the librarian who helped me. Nonetheless, I disagree with her premise. We should never succumb to a fatigue in which we no longer care about the information we share with the world.
Rather, we should be deliberate, not resigned, when we make decisions that could compromise our privacy. Doing so requires us to be informed of our rights. Unfortunately, I would be surprised if even a tiny fraction of users review the entire terms and conditions of the software they download. I, for one, do not.
Instead, we download apps and use proprietary software without comprehending that developers could gain access to our personal lives. Recently, the Undergraduate Student Government discovered that the student managers of Tigerbook, an online search service that allows University students to learn about their peers, have access to user-specific search histories. In other words, the searches are not confidential. To its credit, the USG Executive Committee notified students of this finding and pledged to write clearer and more stringent guidelines in an email on Oct. 15.
I have used Tigerbook, oblivious that others could see my activity, and I would imagine this is true of many other students. Refusing this service, on the grounds that it endangers my privacy, would be my prerogative, as it would be for everyone. The burden of choosing to use or deny a service rests on the individual. Unfortunately, factors beyond our control often influence this choice. For example, students who enroll at Princeton must use school-issued Gmail addresses, regardless of how they feel about Google.
Congress has debated the citizen’s right to online privacy, albeit only after internal leaks revealed the NSA’s illegal collection of private data. When I talk with my peers about this issue, a few of them echo the common refrain that “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” They contend that, in the interest of national security, a law-abiding citizen should be willing to cede her record to the government.
Yet innocent until proven guilty is a cornerstone of our legal system. My friends’ logic fails to explain why, if this were the case, the government would benefit from obtaining our information. In a lecture at the Wilson School on Oct. 19, distinguished diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Kenya and Guatemala Prudence Bushnell argued that the Bush administration’s “war on terrorism” undermined American values, such as our tolerance of immigrants. I would argue that privacy, a civil liberty, falls into the same imperiled category.
I do not mean to suggest that the government is malicious, or that we should be overly cynical of private corporations. Both Washington and Silicon Valley bring tremendous benefits to our society, and the contentions I raise above are still under debate. Rather, I wish to encourage all of us to critically weigh our own position regarding privacy.
The danger lies in the easiest, most apparent solution: to throw an abstract concern like privacy to the wind. Indeed, Google Chrome has often tempted me, for no search engine exceeds Google in convenience and capability. In my experience, Gmail is the most intuitive email service. Google’s connectivity is amazing. Yet, I have held out.
You could call me naïve for sticking my head in the sand and rejecting the most innovative tool in the world. That criticism holds merit, and I do not begrudge Google users their head shaking. But, as I asserted above, we have the right to decide as individuals. My choice of web browser and search engine affects no one but me.
As for Zotero, I need it for one of my classes. Therefore, I have reached a tenable compromise. I installed Chrome and Zotero on my computer. I use Google for scholarly searches, saving pertinent articles that I find on Chrome to Zotero. As for my personal use of the internet, business that is none but my own, I elect the road less traveled. I can only hope that it makes a difference.
Jon Ort is a first-year from Highlands Ranch, Colo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.