Elastic Privacy: The Progression of SSNs

Preston C. Russett’s A Contemporary Portrait of Information Privacy: Collective Communicative Consequences of Being Digital presents a rather bleak, dystopian view of the future. Russett even begins his argument by referencing George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. He claims that Orwell would be smirking if he were to see todays world in which is book has become increasingly relevant.

“With the rapid evolution of digital technology, now more than ever, privacy proves to be a relative and elusive concept” (Russett 41).

A large portion of an individual’s daily actions is digitally recorded without the individual being aware. If the individual is aware, the intrusion of privacy tends to be brushed off in exchange for speed and convenience. Russet explains the concepts of data mining and behavioral targeting, two ways in which this accumulation of information can be utilized. Data mining involves a computational analysis of the information to determine patterns, correlations, and other structural features helpful for making predictions and observations. Behavior targeting consists of constructing a virtual profile based on data surrounding an individual. The amount of data required for these processes to be accomplished successfully is incredible, yet, it has managed to become all too easy these days. 

The Internet Age has become accustomed to exhibitionist practices. Russet states, “selective disclosure is dissolving” (43).  We are choosing to put our own personal information on the Internet (a sphere where nothing can truly be erased) with little regard to the consequences. Marketers are not the only ones to use this information. Russet uses Bentham’s Panopticon as an allegory for the ‘invisible omnipresence’ of our government’s surveillance abilities. The prison tower design contained a central watchtower that had view to the entirety of the facilities. Russet eerily adds, “the brilliance of the design was that each individual could potentially be monitored at any moment, but he would never be aware of when, and if, he was being monitored (44).

Creepy, no? Russett’s argument was loaded with examples, but one stood out to me. The public’s view of mass surveillance and behavioral targeting systems is largely shaped by the industries using them. The industries controlling the representation of these technologies ensure that the, “public are made to believe that these systems will be tightly self-governed and not developed past certain elastic levels” (Russet 46). To further understand his discussion of these ‘elastic levels’, Russet uses the Social Security system as an example. He explains that when the system was first instituted, SSNs (Social Security numbers) were promoted as being only for social security purposes and that information accrued by the system would not be circulated outside of it. I found this strange considering how much I find myself using my SSN. When I applied for schools, jobs, and even to study abroad, I had to include my SSN. My experience with my SSN speaks to the elasticity of the levels at which these technologies are portrayed as able to develop. They are slowly seeping into our lives, and though Russett’s argument seems a bit dramatic at times, he does so to make a valid point (that happens to be a bit frightening). It appears that personal privacy is endangered concept and it is vanishing quicker than it seems.


Preston C. Russett (2011) A Contemporary Portrait of Information Privacy: Collective Communicative Consequences of Being Digital, Review of Communication, 11:1, 39-50, DOI: 10.1080/15358593.2010.504882

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