What Your Communication Metadata Says About You?

A few weeks ago, when information about the National Security Agency’s (U.S.) phone surveillance program surfaced, the U.S. President Obama was quick to announce that “nobody is listening to your telephone calls”. It was rather a little “harmless” system that collected metadata about individuals’ phone calls.

We have been hearing similar claims about electronic surveillance systems lately. For example, the “don’t be evil” company Google attempts to comfort us that their e-mail surveillance system is not creepy by saying that:

Ad targeting in Gmail is fully automated, and no humans read your email or Google Account information in order to show you advertisements or related information.

So no peeping tom is reading your e-mails, Google says. And that should be enough to comfort you about the privacy of your e-mails. Or is it?

The problem is, often, metadata says more about an individual than once can ever imagine. As EFF has recently put it, it may even say more about a person than the actual content of a phone call (or an e-mail):

Sorry, your phone records—oops, “so-called metadata”—can reveal a lot more about the content of your calls than the government is implying. Metadata provides enough context to know some of the most intimate details of your lives.  And the government has given no assurances that this data will never be correlated with other easily obtained data. They may start out with just a phone number, but a reverse telephone directory is not hard to find. Given the public positions the government has taken on location information, it would be no surprise if they include location information demands in Section 215 orders for metadata.

However, as I said, it may often be very difficult to imagine what your communication metadata says about you. And the good folks at MIT come to the rescue. They created a very simple visualization tool that demonstrates how companies or the government can make inferences about your relationships based on your contacts in e-mail. The tool is called Immersion.

You can link your Gmail accounts to MIT’s “Immersion” tool here and see what comes up.

Mine is below (contacts anonymized, of course)


Privacy, Literacy, and Awareness Paradox in Big Data Ecosystems

The abstract and a copy of the presentation that we (Mihaela Popescu & Lemi Baruh) made in IAMCR conference in Dublin are available below. The paper introduces the concept of “awareness paradox” to discuss privacy literacy in an era of Big Data analytics. Thanks to all listeners for their responses and questions. The full paper is still a work in progress.

Title: Digital Literacy & Privacy Self-governance: A Value-based Approach to Privacy in Big Data Ecosystems

Abstract: The growth of interactive and mobile technologies, which equip institutions with vast capabilities to amass an unprecedented amount of information about individuals, has enabled the development of new business models. These business models rely on data-mining techniques and real-time or near real-time Big Data analytics designed to uncover hidden patterns and relations. Increasingly, the use of personal information, including behavioral and locational data, for large-scale data mining is becoming a normative capital-generating practice.

This new regime of data intensive surveillance is akin to a fishing expedition that starts by comparing each data-point to the population base, while potentially signaling any deviation as a potential risk to avoid or an opportunity to capitalize on. More importantly, by relying on algorithmic analysis of data, this regime of surveillance removes humans from the interpretation process, makes the process increasingly opaque, and adds an aura of objectivity that preempts challenges to the epistemological foundations of its inferences. At the same time, as policies for digital media use shift toward promoting self-management, they increasingly assume an ideal “omni-competent” user who is at once able to “benefit” from being open to information sharing and communication availability, weigh these benefits against the potential risks in the digital environment, and engage in risk-aversive behaviors. This assumption is distinctly at odds with the reality of individuals’ understanding of privacy risks. The ubiquitous and technically specialized nature of modern data collection makes it increasingly difficult for online and mobile users to understand which entities are collecting data about them and how. Moreover, studies show that less than a third of online users read, however partially, a website’s privacy policy (McDonald et al. 2009), with only about 2% likely to read it thoroughly (Turow et al. 2007). Ironically, as the work of the Ponemon Institute in the United States demonstrates, absent legislation to the contrary, Big Data also means that companies are able to identify privacy-centric customers and treat them differently in order to allay their concerns, rather than providing privacy-conscious policies for all customers (Urbanski, 2013).

This paper positions the discussion of privacy self-governance in the context of normative digital literacy skills. The paper seeks to unpack and question the nature of these apparently conflicting digital literacy competencies as they relate to current privacy policies in the United States, policies which emphasize individual responsibility, choice, and informed consent by educated consumers. Taking as the point of departure an exploration of what it means to be aware of privacy risks, the paper analyzes recent policy documents issued by governmental agencies as well as commercial discourse in marketing trade journals, in order to examine how state and market-based entities frame both the meaning of user privacy risk awareness and the meaning of voluntary opt-in into data collection regimes. Next, by referencing data collection and data mining practices in Big Data ecosystems, the paper discusses to what extent these differential framings translate into a coherent set of principles that position privacy education among the “new” literacies said to enhance individual participation in the digital economy. Given the “take it or leave it” approach adopted by corporations that engage in data collection and use, the paper questions the potential of digital literacy to translate into meaningful actions from users able to prompt a change in data practices that dominate the U.S. market. The paper concludes with a discussion of the policy implications of this “awareness paradox”—a concept that describes how more digital literacy about privacy may lead to a higher tendency for some users to withdraw themselves from the market for certain types of online services, which, in turn, my decrease the incentives for the market to cater to their privacy needs.

Click Here for the Presentation

In case it is useful, please cite as: Popescu, M. & Baruh, L. (2013, June). Digital Literacy and Privacy Self-Governance: A Value-Based Approach to Privacy in Big Data Ecosystems. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the International Association for Media and Communication Research Conference, Dublin, Ireland.

Streaming Senseless has arrived

1 song per year since 2008. Definitely poor productivity… I blame work. And the output is a new compilation containing 5 new songs. The compilation, entitled Streaming Senseless is now available on my music page and on SoundCloud

The songs are licensed under a are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.

Please listen to the songs at your own risk, I accept no responsibility of irreparable ear or taste damage.


PhD and MA Studentships at Koç University

We are looking for candidates for PhD and MA studentships at the Design, Technology, and Society program at Koc University for two projects.

Online Socialization and Social Media
Investigators: Lemi Baruh, PhD, email: lbaruh[at]ku.edu.tr & Zeynep Cemalcılar, PhD, email: zcemalcilar[at]ku.edu.tr

The candidates will become a member of new research team that studies online socialization, interpersonal relationships and social media, mobile communications, and persuasion. Currently the team works on a number of projects, including the impact of self-disclosure on social network site (SNS) based relationship initiation, privacy in mobile environments, and individual differences regarding the uses of SNS.

Successful candidate(s) should have:

  • A graduate degree (MA, MSc) in related fields, such as social psychology, media studies
  • A working knowledge of experimental design and survey research methods
  • A working knowledge of quantitative data analysis
  • Proficiency in English

Although not required, knowledge of computer programming languages will be a plus.

Use of Media Technologies in Emergency and Crisis Communication by the Public
Investigator: Lemi Baruh, PhD, email: lbaruh[at]ku.edu.tr

This project aims to identify and create a typology of communication needs in crisis situations (e.g., political crises, protests) and emergencies (e.g. earthquakes, radioactive spills, violent attacks on civilians); describe the various roles that citizens may assume in emergency communications; examine how conventional and new media technologies (and particularly mobile technologies and social media) can be utilised by various citizens groups involved in emergency communications; and summarize ethical issues concerning citizens’ involvement in emergency communications.

Qualified candidate who will work as a Ph.D. or a Master’s student in this project should be highly versed in new media technologies, recent developments in hardware and software applications for social media and mobile communications. Also the desired candidate should have a working knowledge of qualitative data collection methods, including interviews, focus groups, and textual analysis. Proficiency in English and in Turkish is required. Proficiency in additional foreign languages will be a plus.

For both projects, please check the Design, Technology and Society webpage for information regarding the application procedures.

Click here for information regarding scholarships and financial aids available

Positions at Department of Media & Visual Arts

mava logo

Koç University, Department of Media and VisualArts, invites applications for part-time instructor and full-time faculty positions of any rank (beginning September 2013). At the time of employment, qualified full-time position candidates should have a PhD or equivalent degree, and part-time instructor candidates should have a minimum MFA or equivalent degree.

Areas of specialization are open, but candidates with applied and/or research experience in one of the following areas are particularly encouraged to apply:

  • Design (e.g., design theory, design history, information design, typography, design studio)
  • Film production and film studies
  • Animation  (e.g., 2-D animation, 3-D animation, 3-D modeling)
  • Communication and media studies (e.g., electronic and digital media, social media, communications policy, political communication, journalism, media and culture)
  • Media and communications management (e.g., broadcasting, media planning, public relations)

The Department of Media and Visual Arts at Koc University, founded in 2010, offers an interdisciplinary curriculum that emphasizes communications theory, media/arts management, and production. Successful candidates will have the opportunity to contribute to the development of the department. He or she will be expected to teach two courses per semester and is expected to have an active research, publication, and/or art production agenda.

Located in Istanbul, Turkey, Koc University is a highly reputable foundation English-instruction university. More information about Koc University is available at www.ku.edu.tr. More information about the Department of Media and Visual Arts is available from mava.ku.edu.tr.

Interested applicants should submit applications electronically to the e-mail address below, by November 30, 2012:

  • Cover letter
  • Curriculum vitae
  • Summary statement of teaching
  • Research statement OR artist statement and samples of creative work
  • Three letters of reference (The referees should directly e-mail a signed PDF copy of the reference letter to the e-mail address below. The referee should insert the following in the e-mail subject line: “Reference for <Applicant Name>,<Applicant Last Name>”

To Ms. Arzu Kırcal

e-mail: akircal@ku.edu.tr

Subject line of application e-mail: “Position in Media and Visual Arts”


Teaching Position, Department of Media and Visual Arts

Teaching Position at Koç University, for Film Production, Game Design and Animation, Programming

The Department of Media and Visual Arts (MAVA) at Koç University is looking for practitioner(s) to teach media production courses in at least one of the following areas: Film Production, Game Design and Animation, Programming. Applicants with experience in more than one of these areas are particularly welcome to apply. All courses at MAVA are taught in English.


  • The qualified candidates should either have a Masters Degree (MA or MFA) or a minimum of 10 year production related experience in their respective fields with BA or BS degree
  • Experience in teaching undergraduate level courses is a plus.
  • Excellent command of spoken and written English
  • Expected to contribute to MAVA by advising students in media production projects.

Subject areas:

(1)Film Production: Teaching introductory and advanced level courses in film and video. The film productions are expected to provide students with hands-on experience in pre-production, directing, camera use and movements, lighting, video and audio editing, special effects, compositing and motion graphics.

(2) Game Design and Animation: Teaching 2D and 3D animation production courses focusing on character design, computer based 2D animation production and animation production techniques such as stop-motion) and 3D animation production courses.

(3) Programming Basics: Teaching applied production courses focusing on visual and interaction design principles for online environments and programming basics (HTML 5, dynamic HTML, CSS writing, XML, JavaScript programming, basics of using ActionScripts).

Interested applicants should submit an updated CV on the web and web portfolio and work samples online to http://idws.info.

Graduate Programs in Design, Technology, and Society

Koç University is now accepting students to the new Design, Technology, and Society (DTS) M.A. and Ph.D. programs. Part of the Graduate School of Social Sciences and Humanities, the DTS aims to provide students with an opportunity to acquire applied, theoretical, and critical understanding of interactive communication, experience design and service design and develop as researchers and/or practitioners.

The program will provide an interdisciplinary training on applied and experimental design, computation, human cognition, emotions, and perceptions, motor systems, informatics, history and philosophy of science, technology, and information.

Position at MAVA: Media Lab Technician

Koç University, Department of Media and Visual Arts is looking for a Media Lab Technician who will oversee the utilization of audio-visual equipment at Koç University.

The successful candidate will be responsible for:

  • Check in and check out audiovisual equipment (cameras, video recorders, sound recording and lighting) to students and faculty and ensure that equipment are returned on time and in proper conditions.
  • Maintain and monitor cameras, printers, computers, studios, and lighting equipment.
  • Keeping an inventory of media production equipment, software and computers.
  • Providing support to faculty members in media production classes and projects.
  • Assisting students and faculty in equipment demonstrations and set-up.


  • Must be proficient with Adobe Creative Suite (especially Photoshop, Flash, and Illustrator), FinalCut Studio.
  • Proficiency in web design is a plus.
  • Should be a quick learner and be able to independently familiarize him/herself with new equipment and software.
  • Must have an undergraduate degree in or should be experienced in video and photography production.
  • Must be able to multitask and stay organized.
  • Must be proficient in English.
  • Ideal candidate will be articulate, attentive and takes initiative.
  • Must be able to lift approximately 10-12Kg