Saturday, August 15

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Tigerbook, privacy, and consent

<p>Tigerbook profile of Chris Murphy ’20, the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Princetonian.</p>
<h6>Photo Credit: Tigerbook</h6>

Tigerbook profile of Chris Murphy ’20, the Editor-in-Chief of The Daily Princetonian.

Photo Credit: Tigerbook

Claire Wayner, a fellow columnist, recently argued that we should bring back some of the features from Tigerbook in its original form. In brief, she argued that the benefits of having access to Tigerbook significantly outweighed concerns about the platform, and that the University ought to consider reinstating Tigerbook in its original form — and even add a few new features.

Tigerbook, however, represented an invasion of privacy, and the concerns that it raised should compel us to forfeit the benefits the platform provided.

Like many of my peers, I benefited from the platform. Hometown listings, for instance, were often useful in making sure I remembered where my friends were from without having to ask them dozens of times, as Wayner notes. The most controversial feature — students’ dorm rooms — were also useful: it can be awfully awkward to ask a friend where they live after having been to their dorms many times. That being said, I am not convinced that the benefits of Tigerbook in its original form really outweighed the costs. 

Privacy, for many of us, is of central importance. If recent discussions about social media are any indication, we are often shocked, if not deeply perturbed, when we find that corporations and other entities have infringed upon our privacy. The reason for this, it seems to me, is that privacy is necessarily tied to autonomy. Privacy allows us, as individuals, to make decisions about how we live our own lives and who we share those lives with.

Yet, it seems that privacy — and the autonomy it is meant to protect — are somehow subject to a utilitarian calculus. The ostensible benefits of, say, Facebook outweigh ceding control of our data and information. Similarly, it seems that the benefits of Tigerbook — not having to ask our friends for information we should already know, for instance — simply outweigh the costs to our privacy that may come with it. 

This all ought to worry us.

It’s important to remember the comparatively limited harms that Tigerbook represents, especially in light of the damage done by social media companies such as Facebook. Unlike the case of Cambridge Analytica, the exposure of our data is limited to other members of the University community, who need netIDs to see any of the information. Moreover, this is not a sophisticated program that attempts to gather deeply personal information; rather, it is limited to the information that the University has collected about us.

I also want to emphasize that the reforms Wayner proposes are aimed at maintaining the privacy of our fellow students. The compromise between protecting all data and revealing the information available previously on the platform represents a valuable attempt to balance the utility of the platform and students’ privacy concerns. Moreover, including an opt-out option, as she suggests, would certainly be a better measure towards ensuring our privacy relative to what exists.

As such, I do not want to suggest that we should simply scratch the platform, something even the University has not done, though they presumably could. And I am not, in principle, opposed to reintroducing some of the information that was once featured on the platform. 

My suggestion, though modest, could lead to more radical outcomes for our privacy: change Tigerbook to a purely opt-in system. This would have various advantages compared to both the current system and Wayner’s suggestion that the platform might include an opt-out system. 

First, it has the benefit of protecting students who do not use the platform. It’s not clear to me why students who do not use it — out of ignorance of the platform’s existence or because they’ve chosen not to use it — still ought to be subject to the exposure of their data. This is particularly pernicious in the case of students who are not aware of the existence of the platform; it would be akin to being taxed by the government without knowing you are being taxed. 

This leads me to my second point, which relates to the notion of consent. If I am correct that privacy protects our autonomy, then the only way to overcome a violation of that relation would be for us to consent to it.

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Imagine that I own a very special coffee mug, and you have a strong desire to use it. The only way for you to be able to use it would be for me to give you permission to use it — that is, for me to consent to your use of the coffee mug. In order for us to consent to something happening, it seems that I have to give you affirmative permission. It follows that in order for someone to violate my right to privacy, I have to consent to that action.

An opt-out system might be thought to do the necessary work. It allows us to stop someone from having access to a certain sphere of our autonomy, such that it seems to mirror our consent. The problem with opt-out systems, however, is that they presume consent.

Given the nature of autonomy, such a presumption cannot be valid. In the case of the coffee mug, you cannot presume that I have consented to your use of the coffee mug. An opt-out system on Tigerbook suggests that we’ve somehow already consented to other people having access to our information. This is an implausible assumption.

An opt-in system, conversely, presumes no such thing. It is built on the assumption that we have a right to privacy, and that only our express consent can validly overcome that right. This solution, I think, satisfies all of our concerns. It allows us to access the information we might want or claim to need, though under a substantial constraint: the individual whose information you are looking for would have had to agree that you could access it. Moreover, we could strengthen this constraint with a fairness clause, clarifying that you must opt-in to use the platform; you must consent to release the information in order to see other people’s information. 

I do not disagree with many of my peers that Tigerbook was a valuable resource. But as I have argued, it’s not clear to me that Tigerbook’s benefits outweigh its potential dangers. My proposal for a mandatory, opt-in-for-use system balances these two worries in a way that takes seriously the relationship between privacy and autonomy.

Like Wayner, I would like to save Tigerbook. Doing so, however, requires thinking hard about how we can responsibly protect the right to privacy.

Sebastian Quiroz is a senior from Deltona, Fla. He can be reached at