âYou don’t have any privacy anyway,â said Scott McNealy, managing director of the infamous Sun Microsystems over 20 years ago. “To move on.”
Well, you shouldn’t get over it. The rise of social media, Google, online shopping and banking has made us much more exposed than when the internet started in 1999. Today, personal data such as your social security number, Your bank account information, passwords, purchases, political beliefs, likes and dislikes are stored in central databases. This makes it easier than ever for companies who want to separate you from your money to analyze, and easier for criminals or for the government to sift through. Worse, we give up a large part of it voluntarily.
Maybe you think McNealy’s remark was premonitory and the tech companies simply won the battle to access all your private wishes or thoughts. (They even follow your mouse movements.) And it might seem benign to entrust your shopping and web browsing history to technologists in Silicon Valley. But you should be concerned that access to your data and a myriad of inferences about you is just a request from the government.
At a congressional hearing last month, Tom Burt, Microsoft’s vice president for customer security, said his company responds to 3,500 federal law enforcement requests for sensitive customer data each year, all under the seal of secrecy.
âMost shocking is how routine privacy orders have become when law enforcement targets an American’s email, text or other sensitive data stored in the cloud,â Burt said. In other words, the days of trench-clad G-men rummaging through filing cabinets are long gone, and the attack on our privacy is being waged, well, in private.
This aggregation of data has of course real benefits for consumers. Facebook and many other sites are free in large part due to the sheer volume of data thrown into the voracious mouths of businesses daily, which in turn fuels their lucrative targeted advertising business. The more the ads can be tailored to each consumer, the higher the price of the ad. It’s the difference between displaying a generic Nike shoe ad and displaying one for Nike in the right size, color, and style.
Any idea that digital privacy is overrated is belied by Facebook’s very public anger over Apple’s recent move to allow iPhone users to opt out of being tracked on the mobile web. Your data is worth billions.
Brad Smith, the president of Microsoft, recently pleaded in the Washington Post to cut back on secret gag orders to help restore consumer privacy. But he failed to recognize that Big Tech was an obvious stop for investigators thanks to its voracious aggregation of data about its users, nor did he come up with solutions that would reduce the flow of information from users to users. corporate computers – and ultimately to governments.
The breaches of our privacy have become not only more secret, but also much more effective. Americans have already paled at the government’s efforts to sweep the data, including through the post-9/11 Patriot Act and programs like the Clipper Chip, which created a backdoor for the government to monitor phone conversations.
Much of the erosion of online privacy stems from the Federal Trade Commission policy known as “notice and choose,” which gives businesses almost no limit on what they can collect, so long as that users are informed, often on unwieldy terms and conditions, according to “System Error: Where Big Tech Went Wrong and How We Can Reboot,” a forthcoming book by three professors at Stanford University. “No one expects, much less wants to be followed from moment to moment, with the intricate details of our lives pieced together and made constantly reviewable by companies or governments,” they write.
The problem, they argue, is that Big Tech places the onus on users to protect their own privacy, which businesses would otherwise exploit at will. But most consumers cannot be expected to read hundreds of pages of disclosures, nor, if they object to their data being collected, exclude themselves from participating in a speech via Facebook, Twitter. or Google.
In their efforts to prosecute or prevent crime, governments may sweep away health, sexual, or financial information that may affect employment or future benefits and that most people would not otherwise voluntarily disclose. Facial recognition software, made available to governments, has drastic and frightening implications for surveillance and law enforcement and even for legal activities like participating in protests.
President Joe Biden has raised his own concerns, ordering the FTC in its broad executive order this month to write new rules regarding private surveillance and data collection. While the changes may take years to materialize, they are a welcome recognition of the extent of the problem.
Tech companies have for too long exploited the indifference of users and lawmakers to a market they’ve designed that leverages ever-increasing data collection in exchange for free products like email and digital maps.
The authors of “System Error” call for three reforms:
- a right to privacy mandated by the federal government
- revisions to informed consent rules so consumers know what they are committing to
- and a new government agency to protect the privacy rights of citizens.
Congress has considered federal privacy legislation for several years, but has been unable to pass a bill, leaving states to enact their own patchwork of protections.
However, the Biden administration appears to be turning the tide of regulatory apathy, in addition to a promising list of antitrust bills in Congress that would correct some of the imbalance between big tech and consumers. But it will also require a collective sense of outrage – you don’t have to be okay with surrendering your life to the technocrats of Silicon Valley.