February 2015: Jane Ruffino, digital archaeologist

Archaeology in the Age of (No) Privacy

jane history

This is a screenshot of some of the search history on my iPad. As you can see, I’ve been on Twitter, Facebook, and a live webcam of some puppies (you should check it out), along with two shots of vanity: an article I wrote for an online collection, and a tumblr I put together of doge memes. Oh, and let’s just not talk about the Kid Rock Cruise (unless you want to, which I sort of do).

I don’t feel strange sharing this because I scrolled through my search history to find a shot that wouldn’t violate anyone else’s privacy, but one that also wasn’t just streams of browsing shoes online. But what stops me from sharing a screenshot that includes email subject lines or the names of Facebook friends? I’m concerned for their privacy, sure, but does it matter if I’m not that concerned about my own (I am, generally)? Or is privacy not a herd-immunity situation?

What will the reshaping of our privacy concerns mean for archaeology in the future? How will it change what people will expect to know about their past, and how will it determine what we’re able to access?

Archaeology and the tech industry

I work in the tech industry, mostly doing marketing and content strategy with startups, so I spend a lot of time analyzing user behavior, creating narratives and constructing possible explanations out of streams of data left by people whose intentions I can’t ever really know – that maybe they don’t even know.

I get paid to look at the traces people leave behind, and figure out what those traces mean, so that I can take action that might make them click a button that gives us money. It’s archaeology — and then some.

I’ve always been interested in what we have a right to know about the people whose data we have access to. It’s come up in archaeology, especially in relation to politically charged areas, and/or more recent eras. And it comes up in the digital realm on a daily basis. Right now, these questions remain separate. But increasingly, our digital lives will become the record of social history for the 21st century. What happens then?

Privacy, ethics, and extreme caution in the face of data, especially data that seems self-evident, were a core part of my interests as an archaeologist, and those remain at the centre of how I do my job today.

The right of archaeologists to study people’s personal lives remains largely unquestioned because it’s seen as in the public interest. And yet, even if it’s not for commercial gain, your personal digital life is not open for outside analysis because that is an invasion of your privacy. The consensus on the former is incompatible with the consensus on the latter.

Or is this even true?

It might not even be true.

What is privacy, really?

Will digital privacy start to make people uncomfortable about archaeological practices? What way do we need to change our practices so that we can carry out a role that is in the public interest without violating privacy, or leaving out essential chunks of the story?

Does it matter that I recently Googled “toxic bird poop,” or that I have been enjoying “Samuel Beckett motivational cat posters”? Do you want me to explain why I looked up “jason statham deodorant,” “john galt underoos” (neither exist, by the way), or “who is the least attractive Skarsgård”? Not really. A few of these results will be enough to let you know that I try to check my facts before being funny on the internet. It doesn’t tell you much about who I am as a person – no more than a few knickknacks would do — and I’m not sure how much I want you to know.

At first, I thought I could run a kind of experiment, where I invite people to study each other, where I set up a research project that involves repeatedly violating each other’s privacy in order to see where our boundaries are (yes, this probably would have involved safe words, and yes, I would have to Google how they work). But I’m not sure the positive impact of a casual experiment like this would outweigh the ethical and logistical dimensions, and besides, I think we’d be skipping a few steps.

A public conversation about privacy and social life

I want to open up a conversation about what we will and won’t accept when it comes to archaeology, today, and in the future. This is a conversation technology companies are already having: they are extremely interested in the long-term status of our personal data. Our governments are definitely doing it. And then there are organisations like the Internet Archive, who are trying to preserve the whole web on a budget of a couple million dollars.

We, as people, as archaeologists, as tech professionals, journalists, social researchers, and whatever else we might be, need to be having this conversation, too.

Each week for the month of February 2015, I’ll choose a case study that touches on a key theme, and invite people to have a discussion around the uneasy relationship between archaeology and privacy, and the implications of that today, and in the future.

At the end of the month I want us to have come up with a list of specific questions that we can ask before or during projects that involve other people’s information.

* Does archaeology invade people’s privacy?

* Who controls the narrative if a private company owns our data?

* If the deposition of an object implies consent, then what about when that object is made out of data?

* Who should index our knowledge, and what happens if you want to opt out?

* How can we develop methodologies for studying the digital past, with the knowledge that the people most concerned with their privacy might turn out to be the least known?

See you in February ’15.

Unless, of course, I take the Kid Rock Cruise after all (because there’s no way that will end well).


7 thoughts on “February 2015: Jane Ruffino, digital archaeologist

  1. Pingback: PA2015: February preview – What happens when you ask people for their consent to be studied? | Public Archaeology 2015

  2. I’m willing to take part. I’ve got an interesting history with data/privacy (I used to be an Army interrogator/interrogation instructor).

  3. Hi Jane,

    This is a very exciting project and one that really appeals to me as I work with social media and archaeology education. I have more questions than answers!

    Conceptions of privacy and rights to privacy are rapidly evolving due to the way that users engage with the digital world. I wonder how Google’s “right to be forgotten” fits into this. Also, what about issues of copyright. And what is sensitive data today may be conceived of as non-sensitive in the future.

    When dealing with massive data sets from data scraping across platforms and search engines, the individual is lost, so how much of an issue is using their personal data if no one reflects on their individuality?

    The way that we even access this type of digital information is changing too – there are patents pending on numerous data mining programmes used by private companies and government agencies alike.

    I feel we are in a transitory phase of public/private cold war (!) which is slowly moving away from the early freedoms of the internet.

    Another issue that I feel has some relevance is that there is a presumption that whatever goes on the internet lasts forever. In theory, yes, this is true, but in archaeological time-scales this is just wrong. Decades from now, how will the entirety of our digital past be stored? Data storage is hugely expensive.
    There might not as much to look back on as we might expect!

    Also, with regard to: * How can we develop methodologies for studying the digital past, with the knowledge that the people most concerned with their privacy might turn out to be the least known?*
    Perhaps this is comparable to the vast array of written sources from and about wealthier classes in eras past – those who recorded their information are most well known about. We can see this in parallel with the “digital class” who share their lives online, but without socio-economic barriers.


    • Yes, Ash, all of this! There are issues of storage, representation, privacy, the controlling of the narrative — and then the overarching thing about people’s expectations. I also worry that as privacy becomes a thing we’re more concerned about, it will then have a market value, which could create a digital divide where only people with the means to pay for privacy can access it.

      I’m also interested in the idea of data storage as an archaeological/curatorial activity. It really got me thinking when I learned that Facebook just bought a huge data centre up in the very far north of Sweden, which will essentially be cold/offline storage. We need to think about these things because if we don’t, only private companies will be thinking of them.

      Then there are companies like Bahnhof, who deliberately do not retain data because they are extremely privacy-sensitive. As a privacy-concerned tech person, I like this a lot. As an archaeologist, my instinct is, “Noooo! The recorrrrd!” But then, the record is never complete anyway, and so on and so on.

      Thanks for your awesome comment! I look forward to February.

      • Have lots to say, but briefly, and in terms of ‘real world’ data landscapes, I have also heard rumours of the development of huge server hubs in northern Finland and Iceland, the thinking being that the colder climate is more conducive to keeping the electronics cool for cheap as electricity prices rise. Feels a bit apocalyptic, but worth keeping an eye on. The physical impacts of these things really interest me, like the impact of fast food on the landscape of the central USA.

        • I’ve also heard about international initiatives for long term data storage of cultural and scientific knowledge and specially designed underground bunkers duplicated in different nations to protect the legacy of our age – so we don’t have another “Dark Age”. Seems like a positive initiative, but there are problems with the natural degradation of all data storage devices (CDs, for example, have a life expectancy of just a few decades).
          Had a rummage online, but can’t find the links!

          • Compelling subject, Jane – and worthwhile discussion thread! As James said, there’s much to comment about, but I wanted to pick up on your point: “I get paid to look at the traces people leave behind”. I like your use of traces here. Reminds me of Andreas Huyssen’s use of the palimpsest metaphor as a way to talk about traces in cities… voids, memories, ghosts of what was there. In your case, the metaphor is well placed since the trace is both literary (written word) yet virtual. Good stuff!

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