'My webcam is like my front door': What COVID-19 means for digital etiquette and consent

As physical distancing forces us to embrace new technologies, so we can stay connected while remaining apart, journalist Hannah Sung is asking what it means for our understanding of privacy and consent.

It’s about 'applying our social mores to our digital tools,' says journalist Hannah Sung

Journalist Hannah Sung says she started thinking more about online privacy and consent in the time of COVID-19 after a video call with friends, in which someone posted a screengrab of the call on social media. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP/Getty Images)

During this time of physical distancing, in which so many of our interactions are taking place virtually — whether it's for work conference calls or to catch up with family on FaceTime — journalist Hannah Sung wonders what it means for our privacy.

She first started thinking about the concept while chatting with friends on Zoom, a video conferencing service. Before she knew it, someone had taken a screenshot of the group of friends during the call, and shared it on social media.

"I didn't mind per se … but I did think to myself, 'Well, where was the consent there?'" said Sung, who is the Spring 2020 Asper Fellow at Western University in London, Ont. She recently wrote about digital consent in her newsletter, At The End of The Day. 

"I think the consent maybe was when I clicked my video camera on … So I just thought to myself, 'Wow, like my webcam is like my front door and I have to be OK with that. If not, I can keep my video off.'"

Some people using Zoom for meetings and academic purposes have had their screens hijacked by malicious actors who put words and images on their screens, or tamper with the audio, prompting the FBI to warn people to be cautious. Zoom, which has already been forced to apologize for not being forthcoming about its security limitations, says it's providing guidance to help virtual classrooms and meetings stay safe. 

Sung spoke to Spark host Nora Young about consent and privacy in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here is part of their conversation.

I know one of the things you were thinking about was … consent in the context of video conferencing. Is there a moment that made you think about that idea of consent?

So I've been Zooming with my friends, I've been screencapping, but I've been asking them. And I had a situation where I screencapped before I asked and I thought ... "Oh my God, I've totally transgressed this rule that I had for myself about consent." So, you know, they're very old girlfriends of mine and I said, "Hey, I want to take your picture." And of course they were fine with it and it was all good.

Hannah Sung is a journalist and 2020 Asper Fellow at Western University in London, Ont. (Submitted by Hannah Sung)

And then the next time I was in a group Zoom call, it was with another group of friends, and I don't remember anybody ever asking, "Hey, I'm gonna take a screencap." But the first time I saw it was on Instagram and I was tagged. And I didn't mind per se, because I do love all these folks and I feel like the person who did it did not mean to break any kind of social rule.

But I did think to myself, "Well, where was the consent there?" I think the consent maybe was when I clicked my video camera on…. So I just thought to myself, "Wow, like my webcam is like my front door and I have to be OK with that. If not, I can keep my video off."

Do you think there's an element of difference in digital literacy here as well, where people who are not as familiar with the software may not feel comfortable acknowledging their discomfort?

Absolutely, yes. Everybody has a different level of literacy — not just with their digital tools, but with like a kind of cultural awareness. 

One sexual health consent educator … really taught me that the way that we think about consent for sexual health in real life is that we should always be verbalizing and, you know, just really be in tune with what the other person is trying to communicate back to us. Having those kinds of basic concepts can help inform the way that you approach your digital tools as well.

Sung says our understanding of consent around sexual health can give us an idea about how to behave in the digital world. (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

She taught me that you do not screencap a private conversation, i.e. a one-on-one text messaging [conversation], and then share it ... because the other person has not given you consent.

And so it's kind of this fluidity of applying our social mores to our digital tools.

What kind of effect do you think it has on our kind of comfort level with these tools [such as Zoom] to be sort of pivoting from them being these professional tools to being primarily social?

I don't think there's really any way to say right now. Just time will tell. 

As a mom of two young children, I've really been vigilant about trying to keep the screens at bay for them … [but] the door has been burst wide open with [COVID-19]. 

My son, who's eight, yesterday was on FaceTime … with his little buddy, and they were having a Pokémon card battle for like an hour, and it was very intense, and he was having such a fun time.

I was not comfortable with this stuff previously, and now it's kind of just the only way I'm going to have my children keep in touch with their friends, for example.

School is about to go online and I don't really know how that's going to roll out. But one of my tasks today is to get my eight-year-old an email address. And you know, a month ago I would've thought, "Well, what would I need that for?" 

As schools move online during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sung says she is setting up an email account for her eight-year-old son and learning to be more comfortable with how her kids use technology. (Shutterstock )

Do you think this proliferation of Zoom calls again in particular also contributes to the sort of general blurring of lines between our personal and our professional lives now that so many people are working from home?

Yes, 100 per cent. And I kind of like it. 

On the very first day of working from home I was on a call ... but because all the kids are at home, you know, I heard the piano playing in the background and kids yelping and, you know, my colleague has to turn to the side and say, "OK, in just a minute, just a minute honey." 

I love the idea that we can think of our colleagues as whole human beings who do have their entire lives outside of the workplace. And if we could integrate it a little better, then maybe we'd be more understanding of each other. We wouldn't be so driven for results that are not people first.

It makes you wonder if, down the road, you know, when we don't all share the same collective experience, we can still be that forgiving with each other.

I think that would be a really beautiful thing to come from this. And I've seen a lot of people kind of express that sentiment or that hopefulness that, you know, we'll come out of the other side of this with way more compassion and empathy and time for each other.

Written by Kirsten Fenn. Produced by Olsy Sorokina. Q&A edited for length and clarity.


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