For decades, people have proclaimed a now-common refrain that "privacy is dead." So get on with it, they say.
You probably know some of the most famous of the post-privacy pundits. No doubt, the oft-quoted Scott McNealy, then CEO at Sun Microsystems, eternally quipped, "You have zero privacy anyway. ... Get over it." In 2010, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg argued that social norms were changing and people would go along with Facebook's nudging toward more data sharing. You can even go back to 1970 and see that Newsweek featured a "privacy is dead" cover story.
More than 50 years later, we know that privacy did not die in 1970 or in 2010. And it doesn't have to die in 2021, either, that's according to Carissa Véliz in her new, compelling book, "Privacy Is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data."
In recent years, a new phrase has entered the lexicon: "surveillance capitalism." Made famous by Shoshana Zuboff, surveillance capitalism describes an economic system built around the commodification of personal data. Companies are springing up all over the digital landscape, using personal data for profit. Just look at Clearview AI, for example, a company that scraped facial photos from across the internet to amass a giant database with millions of people's faces to turn around and sell them to law enforcement organizations. Cambridge Analytica, by amassing digital dossiers of people through online quizzes, is another now-infamous company thought to have played a role in the Brexit and 2016 U.S. presidential elections (we'll leave those debates for another day).
And though surveillance capitalism is running full steam, privacy is far from dead, but it is at an inflection point, and we all have a role to play, according to Véliz. She writes, "It's too late to prevent the data economy from developing in the first place — but it's not too late to reclaim our privacy. ... The decisions we make about privacy today and in the coming years will shape the future of humanity for decades to come."
The decisions we make about privacy today and in the coming years will shape the future of humanity for decades to come.
This urgency, this moment in time when people need to play a role in "reclaiming their privacy," is a driving force behind Véliz's call to action.
The key to her argument is privacy's inexplicable ties to power. Whether we are talking about individuals, groups or entire societies, privacy plays a key role. "Human beings need privacy to be able to unwind from the burden of being with other people," Véliz writes. "We need privacy to explore new ideas freely, to make up our own minds. Privacy protects us from unwanted pressures and abuses of power. We need it to be autonomous individuals, and for democracies to function well, we need citizens to be autonomous."
It's no coincidence that some of the most successful — and powerful — companies in the world have amassed incredible amounts of personal data. Tied to power, she points out — citing French post-structuralist philosopher Michel Foucault — is knowledge. The more knowledge companies have on individuals, the more ability they have to influence and nudge people. Privacy, on the other hand, can be empowering, allowing for more self-determination and personal dignity, or as Véliz points out, "Autonomy is the ability and right to govern yourself."
Our autonomy, however, is challenged in a surveillance capitalist society.
Companies have an economic motivation to keep us attuned to our news feeds, to keep us on their application, website or service, so we can be served up more advertisements and buy more products. Tied to this is personalization. What I see in my news feed — from social posts to product advertisements to political propaganda — is based on my known interests and history online. That will be different than other individuals out there, even my neighbor or coworker.
Taken to its logical extension, ubiquitous personalization, Véliz argues, creates an ecosystem that lacks a shared reality.
Taken to its logical extension, ubiquitous personalization, Véliz argues, creates an ecosystem that lacks a shared reality. Sure, it might behoove me to see those killer pair of kicks from Blundstone, but if I'm only seeing political advertisements from the far right, I'm likely not going to have a very easy conversation with a friend who only sees left-leaning political advertisements.
It's this lack of shared reality, on top of lack of personal autonomy, that has a greater impact beyond the individual. Surveillance capitalism, Véliz argues, challenges the health of liberal democracy.
"As the Cambridge Analytica disaster shows, when you expose your privacy, you put us all at risk," she writes. She likens the paradigm to environmental issues. Everyone, for example, needs to reduce their carbon footprint for it to have an effect on global warming. Likewise, as we know all too well post-2020, public health during a pandemic, requires everyone to wear a mask and keep socially distanced.
The same goes for privacy. Individual choices — say, my decision to use a DNA testing kit, even though my sister would rather I didn't — ultimately has an effect on my sister and the entire family. Véliz also notes that losses of privacy have a collective effect. "A culture of exposure damages society. It hurts the social fabric, threatens national security ... allows for discrimination, and endangers democracy."
Indeed, Véliz's call to action is lofty, especially her belief that surveillance capitalism must end, which may sound uncomfortable to some privacy pragmatists and blatantly antithetical to others. Additionally, parts of the book are very consumer-oriented, so for the seasoned privacy pro, you've likely heard many of the examples within the book before, but there is plenty of fresh and important thinking in this book that's worth considering.
Véliz calls on practitioners to exercise their moral and ethical compass within their businesses and organizations. This is a sentiment she echoed in an interview on The Privacy Advisor Podcast late last year. Through actions like privacy by design and default, employees can help empower individuals. "Whatever the case may be, if you are part of the workforce constructing our digital architecture, you have a big role to play in baking privacy into your products from the start," she writes.
"In addition to thinking about profit," she adds, "those who build tech ought to ask themselves how they want to be remembered. ... Do you want to be seen as one of the people who broke democracy? Or do you want to be remembered as one of the people who helped fix the data landscape by offering users a way to navigate life in the digital age while retaining their privacy?"
Policymakers have something to read here, as well. As governments consider more data protection laws and regulators explore privacy and antitrust enforcement, there's plenty of sage advice within Véliz's book.
"We are not witnessing the death of privacy," Véliz contends. "Even though privacy is in distress, we are in a better place now to defend it than we have been for the past decade. This is only the beginning of the fight to safeguard personal data in the digital age."
Photo by Nayani Teixeira on Unsplash
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