Privacy is what allows you to keep certain things from the public — your thoughts, experiences, conversations, and your plans. Privacy allows us the freedom to explore new ideas.
We need to feel safe to share thoughts that may create friction. Without that sense of security, we can hardly formulate ideas or test them against alternate perspectives.
Our lives, translated into data, are the raw material of the surveillance economy. Knowing everything about our behavior allows the holder of this data to shape it. This is a threat to our autonomy. Autonomy is the ability to govern ourselves, and we can only do so if we have accurate information to make a well-informed decision.
Today, companies and governments around the world are taking this autonomy away. Everything that we do and feel, our hopes, fears, what we read, what we write, our relationships, our health, our mistakes, our purchases, our weaknesses — is collected, analyzed, and sold to the highest bidder. Privacy protects us from abuses of power. It gives us the ability to live autonomously, an absolute necessity for a functioning democracy.
The current status of privacy in America is dismal and declining rapidly. April Falcon Doss, author of Cyber Privacy: Who has your data and why you should care, puts America between the European Union and China on the data surveillance spectrum. On the privacy-focused side is the European Union. The EU recognizes privacy as a human right and has passed laws to reshape privacy practices across the continent. Way over on the other side of the scale is China and Russia. China is maintaining control of its population and engaging in crimes against humanity with the planet’s most intrusive surveillance system. Doss argues that Russia, no better, is ‘leveraging the power of digital data to influence the citizens of other nations and to project its power and influence on political processes in countries around the world’. This is obvious in Russia's state media, which has been promoting false narratives, including that of its invasion of Ukraine.
Complacency on the issue of privacy allows the United States to slide toward the more oppressive side of the spectrum. Social media posts are monitored by the government. A program called iCOP (internet Covert Operations Program), run by the United States Postal Inspection Service, is analyzing social media platforms for “inflammatory” posts, then shares them with other government agencies. The program, used initially to investigate potential drug and firearm trafficking through the mail, began to monitor planned protests citing potential threats to Postal Service workers. The iCOP revelation shows just how easily America is starting to tilt further toward the authoritarian edge of the spectrum. We need to realize the looming threat of surveillance, while we can still do something about it.
Why companies want your data
Privacy is a form of power. Whoever can gather the most personal information rules society. If we continue to give our data to companies, they will control society. This doesn't mean that the CEO of Google or Facebook becomes POTUS. That's too obvious. They rule from behind the screens.
The Big Tech companies already have too much power. Giving our data to governments will result in some form of authoritarianism. Society will only be free if we can keep our personal data. Privacy matters because it gives us control of our personal data.
The internet makes its money through the collection, analysis, and trade of personal data. The business model of the personal data trade is being rapidly adopted by all institutions in society. Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard professor and social psychologist, calls this model surveillance capitalism.
Our data lets companies and governments know what we believe and why. They use this information to predict and influence our behavior. Our lives get translated to data, which fuels surveillance capitalism.
“Many data aggregators want it for nefarious purposes,” says Veliz, “to betray our secrets to insurance companies, employers, and governments; to sell us things it’s not in our interest to buy; to pit us against each other to destroy our society from the inside and hijack our democracies.” Companies use our data for profit -governments for control. Those with power only want more.
How companies get your data
Data collectors want you to think that this scale of data collection is normal and that it doesn’t matter because if we believe that, we will continue to give it up without much resistance. Then they create products to find and target our primal desires for their profit and our detriment.
Véliz calls these companies data vultures. They buy the information that the big tech companies (not limited to them) gather from your device activity and use it to their benefit. This information includes our location, how we use an app and when we use it, our messages, our contact list, and even our screen brightness. All of it can be used to our detriment and in some ways that we don’t even know yet.
The fact that these companies are using our data and tracking us online is not a surprise. Six out of ten Americans do not think that you can live a normal life without being tracked by companies. These data-hungry companies, namely Google and Facebook, although not the only ones, want us to use their products because doing so gives them data. The dependence on our devices and the services that they provide seemingly outweigh our ability to resist them. The convenience that they provide appears to be something we can’t live without. We’re addicted.
We know that we are being surveilled, but when it comes to changing how we use our devices, there is an element of convenience and complacency that we can’t seem to shake. Google is powerful because of the amount of personal data it gathers.
The default setting for data gathering from most websites is for visitors to have to opt-out of sharing. Data vultures do this on purpose because they already know that, given the choice, most people will not opt-in to be tracked around the Internet. The people that would opt-in to tracking are few and far between. After the recent settlement between Google and 40 states, New Jersey will be the first state to institute default opt-in data collection. Tech companies like Google and Facebook rely on you and your data because you are the product. If they can’t track you they can’t make money. They can’t stop their business model or they’d go out of business. They’re addicted.
How did we get here?
So, how did we get to a place where we seem to not care about our personal information being gathered and have overwhelming hopelessness towards the idea that anything can be done about our personal data?
“I believe that we made a very particular mistake,” said Jaron Lanier on a TEDx stage in 2018, “and by understanding the mistake we made we can undo it.” Lanier is considered the father of virtual reality and the author of ‘Who Owns The Future’. He recalls the early stages of the internet in the late 1990s. At the time, the tech community wanted to make sure that it was as accessible (free) to the public as it could be. They thought that if it weren’t it would create inequity. But the community also loves its tech entrepreneurs. How do you celebrate entrepreneurship when everything is free? At the time, the advertising model was the only real way to make that happen. So Google and Facebook were created, free with advertisements. In the early stages, ads actually looked like ads, featuring things like your local dentist or a tow company. Things quickly changed. Google used the personal data of their users to sell ads and the company’s revenue grew 3,590% in four years. Our data was used to advance algorithms and what was once advertising turned Google and Facebook into behavior-modification empires. We became the product. Lanier pleads to the TEDx audience to be the change that they want to see.
“We cannot have a society in which, if two people wish to communicate, the only way that can happen is if it’s financed by a third person who wishes to manipulate them,” says Lanier. Heaven, help us.
Carisa Veliz clarifies two more distinct elements that had a role in the erosion of our privacy. The terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, and the propagated myth that privacy is outdated.
This is mass surveillance and the worst part about it is that it didn’t prevent terrorism. “Lives have been saved,” former President Obama told reporters in June of 2013. However, his own Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies never found a single case in which data from phone call records stopped an attack. In the last 20 years, mass surveillance hasn’t shown that it prevented terrorism but has provided tools that assisted the Trump administration in surveilling, detaining, and deporting immigrants.
Public and private institutions worked together on this one. The government okayed corporate data collection so that it could get a copy of the data and the corporations were willing to assist them. Terrorist attacks and pandemics have happened before and they will happen again. Believing that we can prevent them by giving up our freedom and privacy is dangerous nonsense. We have to be wary of quick decisions to give up our privacy in the face of crises, like a global pandemic.
It is in the best interest of big tech that we believe privacy is out of date. Mark Zuckerberg flipped from saying that privacy was no longer a ‘social norm’ to promising that ‘“the future is private”. Even though Zuckerberg seemed to hop on the privacy bandwagon, privacy is consistently blamed for impeding progress, whether by the authorities calling it a hindrance in their efforts to keep citizens safe or doctors and hospitals arguing that personal data is the key to the advancement of personalized medicine. The benefits of privacy have been around and stable for so long that we can forget why it’s so important.
Where do we go from here?
We can escape Big Tech and our own government surveillance to live in a public democracy with private personal lives. Big tech wants us to believe that privacy is not a big deal, that it’s too big to control, and that it’s out of style. That is not to say that we cannot get control of our data. Reclaiming our privacy will take time and effort. Protesting requires people to stand up for something that they believe in, to be aware, to care about their privacy, and value their data. It might not be easy, but we are starting a privacy revolution that will change the shape of society for the good.
The American people, and people around the world, need to stand up to the tech companies and governments that are exploiting our data and stealing our privacy and autonomy to reclaim our right to privacy. This is not going to be a fight in the streets, but a fight in cyberspace. People have to stop using products from companies that don’t respect our privacy. Using an alternative to Google feels odd at first, but it only gets easier and more natural. Simply asking your friends to switch to an encrypted messaging app is how we begin to respond to the surveillance economy. But to upend it, we must actively fight against it. We must learn how to protest in a way that big tech recognizes by using tools of privacy and obfuscation to take away advertising dollars, the lifeblood of data aggregation companies.
The decisions that we make about privacy today will shape the future of our societies and humanity itself. Our choices will impact our politics, how corporations make money, and healthcare options. They will limit or expand the power of governments and companies.
A human future is not a futile endeavor. Our data is exactly that: ours. It is up to us to demand privacy so that it stays that way.
Wow, great post! From what I see outside of being aware/knowledgeable, is the convenience factor. It's harder to use something that's less sexy, a tad slower, or not where EVERYONE already is (such as Whatsapp or Snapchat). If people really knew what's being given up, I do think the script can flip. It's just how can we educate and raise awareness? How do we beat the "but it's so convenient" or the notorious "but I have nothing to hide." Really? So if a stranger walked up to you and knew EVERYTHING about you, you wouldn't mind? What if 50 did that?