This week,National Public Radio’s All Things Considered has been airing a series called “The End of Privacy.” The articles call attention to the fact that social media platforms (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace), email and web crawling services (e.g., Gmail/Google or Yahoo!), and even cell phone services harvest, store and act upon a large amount of personal and identifying information gathered from users. The journalists for these pieces investigate the legal and economic ramifications surrounding the use of personal data in Web applications in general, however, listening to these articles raises important questions for human rights in particular. Specifically, if activists are going to use these platforms to rapidly distribute materials and mobilize actions, they need to be aware of the fact that they are not necessarily working anonymously, though they may assume that they are.
As reflected in several posts on this blog, the use of social media is changing the face of human rights activism and thus causing NGOs and archivists alike to seek means of capturing and preserving the fleeting, transient, and ephemeral information that flies across the Web at the speed of rapidly typing fingers. One of the challenges that immediately rises to the surface in this is protecting the privacy and safety of victims, witnesses, and even activists from further injury by oppressive regimes–a problem that becomes further complicated if we recognize that Web applications are capturing detailed personal information that repressive regimes can access and use against the people who post the materials. Of course, the problem of privacy and safety is not new to human rights–as Valerie Love at the University of Connecticut observes in a recent post to theWITNESS Media Archive: