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Protecting Privacy in the Digital Age
Danielle Citron, JD | University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law
We live in a digital world, there’s no denying that. But as our personal sense of space extends into the digital realm, individual privacy concerns arise.
This privacy, and its relation to free expression and civil rights, is the box that Danielle Citron, JD, has dedicated her career to unpacking.
Take, for example, the 2015 case in which the U.S. government’s Office of Personal Management database was hacked, affecting 22.1 million people. Or the same year when an employee at the U.S. Embassy in London was charged with stealing passwords and sexually explicit photos of more than 250 women as part of a blackmail scheme. And, most recently, in the 2018 Facebook-Cambridge Analytica investigation, when Cambridge Analytica obtained personal data of more than 250 million Facebook users to help spread political propaganda.
Each and every one of these cases relates to individual expectations of privacy in the digital age.
As a respected 14-year faculty member at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and a renowned author, Citron defends the defenseless as they try to protect their rights to privacy online.
Since 2004, Citron has been exploring the ways that we voluntarily and involuntarily expose our personal information online, and in turn, how government and companies track that exposure.
“Information privacy concerns the collection, use, and sharing of our personal data and the essential protections — in law or norms — that enable each and every one of us to develop ourselves, maintain relationships, and have fair opportunities out in the world,” she says.
Consider the way artificial intelligence programs analyze personal data. Companies and governments increasingly use machine-learning technologies to make decisions about individuals that impact fair treatment. For example, insurance companies could analyze our online behaviors and information as a way of assessing if we should be insured and even at what rates.
And this is not just hypothetical. In October 2017, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security actually began using personal information collected from social media platforms to screen immigrants arriving in the U.S.
Or, as another example, the recent publication by The State Council of China about utilizing a “Citizen Score” gathered from online data and habits. This score would function as a national trust score, telling the rest of the world your level of trustworthiness, determining your eligibility for a mortgage or a job or where you can go to school.
“Automated systems are making predictions about who we are and what we will do,” Citron says. “When government does that without meaningful oversight and guarantees of due process, the consequences will be significant.”
So how much of our online information can we control? Are there any limits to the way that public and private organizations can use our personal data? What civil rights does a person have online? How does information privacy affect our free speech?
These are the questions Citron is exploring. She emphasizes how information privacy, free expression, and civil rights are bound together. When our privacy is breached we often withdraw, and simply go offline and lose our sense of power.
“Privacy enables speech,” she says, “and speech is essential to our own autonomy and democracy. The absence of privacy interferes with that.”
Information privacy not only relates on the level of citizen against big corporations, but also in our interactions with one another. For instance, cyber-stalking and cyber-exploitation, such as exposing nude images of an individual without their consent, are issues related to Citron’s fight for information privacy. In her book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, she showed that those largely affected by these privacy violations are women, and even more so women of color.
“Cyber-stalking is often experienced by the vulnerable, specifically women, women of color, and LGBTQ individuals,” she says. “I have been developing a cyber civil rights agenda for protecting the speech and privacy of the vulnerable.”
Currently, in addition to teaching classes at Maryland Carey Law, she travels the country working with lawmakers on the federal and state levels to create policy that benefits digital citizens.
A major case was won in California this April when a man was ordered to pay $6.45 million in damages after posting explicit pictures and videos of his ex-girlfriend online without her consent. In Citron’s words, this case was “groundbreaking” for the message that it sent to individuals inclined to invade another’s sexual privacy.
In 2011, Citron testified about online hate speech before the Inter-Parliamentary Committee on Anti-Semitism at the House of Commons in England— a testament to her legislative influence across the globe.
She also works with major internet powerhouses such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google to create safety measures to protect the company and their platform users. Her work as a part of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council has helped the company create strategies to assist users to express themselves online without fear. By updating their security initiatives, companies avoid the consequences of leaked or potentially harmful information appearing on their sites.
Citron’s global efforts warranted her recognition as part of Cosmopolitan’s “20 Best Moments for Women in 2014” when the magazine included her book Hate Crimes in Cyberspace as part of the lineup. She’s even shared commentary in Netizens, a documentary about women and online harassment, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2018.
Though Citron’s success is a testimony to her hard work and dedication, she knows she could not have achieved it without the support of her colleagues at Maryland Carey Law.
Citron’s information privacy work aligns perfectly with the school’s commitment to the public good. Having a community to encourage and promote that mission is exactly what Citron needs to make change in the world.
But above all, her time spent at the law school is most inspired by the work she does with her students.
“Teaching is essential to how I see myself,” she says. “I have these generations of students who are running the world. I’m so proud, and I get to vicariously enjoy all the incredible work they’re doing. They are the real change makers.”
The future for Citron looks much like the present, just a little more global. With both of her daughters now in college, she can do the one thing she’s always wanted to do: give lectures abroad. In fall 2018, she will have her first keynote-speaking event abroad at the Privacy Law Scholars Conference in Amsterdam.
As she spreads her influence beyond U.S. borders, she hopes to extend her work in information privacy and civil liberties to include inquiry into international privacy systems, helping global digital citizens understand their rights to their data, too.