What if I told you that Target could figure out if you were pregnant before you told anyone else? What if I told you that someone would be able to identify you individually just from your google searches, based solely on the keystrokes? That your 23&Me results could be used to deny you health insurance. What if I told that it was impossible to anonymous on the internet?
That every like, retweet, repost, click was being bought by companies you’ve never heard of.
Would you stop going online? Delete your social media, become a technological hermit.
I don’t think so.
Have you ever wondered why social media is free? Why we’re able to access all these resources for no cost?
But there is a cost. Ads are one answer. Our data is the second. They’re not guessing, when an ad pops up for the sneaker you’ve been wanting for weeks. They’re not guessing... The companies sell our data, to create better ads, which they buy on the platforms.
Every moment you go online, you are being recorded. It’s like going about your daily life, not realizing you’ve stumbled onto a stage, and companies are taking notes in the audience.
This is the ultimate Faustian Bargain. And most of us don't even realize it.
Who has heard of Cambridge Analytica? In 2018, it was revealed that Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm, had taken the personal information of fifty million Facebook users. Then, with that data, offered it to their clients. And, listen to this, it wasn’t even illegal for Cambridge Analytica to take the data: it was legally accessed when people downloaded the app to take the survey, but was not supposed to be sold.
Yet, in 1935, Americans were wary of the new Social Security Program President Roosevelt had introduced. They shyed from the government recording their personal details.
The Fourth Amendment only works against the government infringing on the privacy of individuals, but what is the role of government on corporations infringing on our data privacy?
The European Union has passed the General Data Protection Regulation on data protection and privacy for all individual citizens of the European Union.
And Congress is currently behind. Like the Gilded Age, there is the massive, unregulated industry: the big tech. These industries are given free-rein, because most of us don’t understand how they work. This was clear when Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress. The Senators seemed completely uninformed on how companies collect data and why they do it. It was reminiscent of a grandmother prodding a grandchild how to use a cellphone.
Tech companies would argue that we willingly and knowingly give away our privacy through Terms and Conditions. Aside from the obvious flaw that many of us do not read the terms and conditions. There is a conundrum called the Transparency Paradox: companies will never be able to adequately explain what they are going to do with our data, because the average person could not adequately comprehend the complex machine learning algorithms, and second they cannot even tell us all the ways are data is going to be used, because they haven’t all been invented yet.
Maybe, you’re thinking well...I don’t really care. Data privacy doesn’t really matter to me. Well, it should. We are not far off from when online behavior is being calculated into our credit scores, how likely we are to get into college, if you get health insurance. Not only, but how much inequality with exacerbated, and bias amplified by data that is frankly sexist and racist. We are not allowed to openly discriminate in this country, but what if our computers do? Because algorithms are mirrors, they can reveal our worst features.
This should not be a partisan issue. This is safety. This is privacy. Although, traditionally, a Republican might argue that this the government overstepping, and a Democrat want more oversight. I believe Americans are equally indignant about invasions of privacy. Do not look into our homes, our bedrooms, and no, not our phones.
How do we do this?
Jaron Lanier, computer scientist and futurist, notes, we are both the producer and the consumer. We control the market in both directions. Thus, we have this massive, unrealized economic power. Around the turn of the century, workers decided that were done with poor labour conditions during the Gilded Age, so they formed unions. Took their collective bargaining power and bargained for better conditions, a living wage. Lanier proposes that we can do the same: form data unions. Demand, as a people, that companies don’t use our data. Or they we are paid for our data, and in turn, we pay for use of the networks we take for granted today.
Before the Great Depression, credit seemed to be this magical that allowed you buy what you couldn’t even afford yet. We were buying on false confidence, that the stock would go up as they did yesterday. We didn’t try to understand this mechanism, all we understood was the feeling: the click, the buy, the rush. We are doing the same thing today with our data. What is equivalent of the Great Depression with data? Privacy dies. Monitoring seeps into every single aspect of our lives. Everything lies within the public domain.
But the future does not have to be dismal. The role of government primarily, before everything else, is to protect its people. And right now, we are not protected. The government needs to pass comprehensive legislation that limits the data that companies can collect and how/when it can be sold to other companies.
Privacy does not have to die.
Only if we let it.