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Online Profiling

April 18, 2012

As lamentable as the Trayvon Martin controversy is, some liberals may applaud the effects on the Hegelian dialectic the case presents: it is potentially a clear illustration of the still-pervasive effects of racism in today’s society. But it occurred to me that there is at least one angle that hasn’t really been covered: this unfortunate incident, and especially the subsequent, somewhat artificial muddiness surrounding it, presents an interesting opportunity to highlight the ramifications of a world without privacy.

I can’t exactly say that I have been following the story in such detail to opine definitively on the evidence that exists regarding whether George Zimmerman was relatively unprovoked by Martin when he shot him. It seemed to me that the presumption at the beginning of this story’s development was that Martin was the hapless and more or less innocent victim of racially-charged, paranoid vigilantism. However, as I investigated deeper into the story, it became apparent that the charges of racial profiling and animus on the part of Zimmerman were more or less entirely fabricated by the news media’s initial reports. Apparently, NBC had selectively edited the much-fabled 911 calls to make it seem as though Zimmerman had volunteered the information regarding Martin’s race.

Regardless, it is the Stand Your Ground law that is central to the question of whether or not Zimmerman acted in “self-defense,” and therefore whether or not he will be eventually found guilty of murder. The Stand Your Ground law was pitched as an extension of America’s traditional understanding of the “castle rule” (the idea that your home is your castle, and you can take the reasonable steps to protect yourself inside of it). But it thereby enables anyone to act like a turtle, carrying their home wherever they “feel threatened.” Hence the endless back-and-forth about whether or not Martin and Zimmerman scuffled, and who was the instigator/aggressor in the minutes leading up to Martin’s death.

At this point it would probably be prudent to ask what does any of this have to do with privacy. Well, since the question now focuses on whether or not Zimmerman believed that Martin put him in some form of danger, I don’t think it’s hard to predict what strategy his defense attorneys will consider using: blame the victim. Already, a “debate” has sparked over information gleaned from Martin’s various social media footprints as a reaction to the perception that the initial reports were themselves a form of reverse-racism. People have already started suspecting that Martin was a “thug” all along, regardless of whether or not Martin was wearing a hoodie while black, and therefore “asking for it,” as the great sage Geraldo Rivera once said.

Had Zimmerman seen Martin’s MySpace profile before shooting him? Of course not. But will the Floridian jurors who will have to try the murder case? If the defense has anything to say about it, I’m sure they will. But does someone’s online profile (which is subject to all sorts of display biases and pressures) really have anything to do with whether or not someone should be empowered to shoot someone on their own assessment of what constitutes “dangerous”?

What makes this case a good example of why people need to value privacy is that Martin probably did absolutely nothing wrong in his whole life. Martin may not have even overshared anything that is remotely incriminating. And yet, as a victim, his open identity may undermine his interests. People will draw whatever conclusions they want from the unvarnished information that we carelessly leave around the interwebs, and there are countless ways someone can threaten to mischaracterize your life for their own profit (identity theft, extortion, intimidation, etc.). Unless we want to empower anyone, whether presently known to us or not, to construe our lives in any way they can, we should consider limiting their access to the source material.

Now, the same old arguments resisting any need to protect one’s privacy may be trotted out: Yeah, sure it happened to him, but it wouldn’t happen to me because I don’t do things that are incriminating online. Now who’s blaming the victim?

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