Why does privacy matter? Because our freedom is at stake
What do you think are some of the biggest issues facing society at the moment that have been caused, at least in part, by technology? And how do you think we might fix them? I run ethics by design workshops and at the beginning of every session I ask the participants to call out the ways that technology has affected society. We write them on a big white board. Various themes are constant: disinformation, future of work, the concept of community, and the new attention economy are often discussed. And the more I start to think about each of these issues, the more I realise they are all wrapped up in a big question: how do we ensure that humans have a right to choose? How do we maintain our freedom?
Whether it’s our freedom to be economically independent from the state, the freedom to choose who we vote for in elections with accurate information, the freedom to make choices about what to buy and what to watch, and ultimately the freedom to set goals and then fulfil them… we need to understand what freedom might mean in a digital world.
Protecting what makes us human*
Humans have always been influenced by our physical environment, our relationships and our biology. We walk a fine balance between being cognitive and self-determined beings, and ones that are driven by unconscious bias and biological needs. Despite the claims that we can never have ‘true’ freedom, I believe that it is important for our societies to maintain that individuals have the freedom to choose the direction of their lives and their actions. James Williams puts these in three categories:
- The freedom to do what we want to do
- The freedom to be who we want to be
- The freedom to want what we want to want
This liberty is what distinguishes us from machines and animals. Humans are a great story- telling, incredibly loving, and terribly violent group of biological beings. Machines are driven by algorithms and processes, and animals are driven by genetic determinism.
Historically, we value our freedom. There have been many bloody fights for democratic emancipation. But what does freedom mean in a digital age when the threat comes not from other humans, but the creations of humans — when the threat comes from machines.
What does freedom mean in a digital age when the threat comes not from other humans, but the creations of humans — when the threat comes from machines.
Selinger and Frischman write of two kinds of freedom that we need to establish in the digital age:
- Freedom from programming, conditioning, and control engineered by others.
- Freedom of will and practical agency.
However, as Shoshana Zuboff explains in her book called ‘Surveillance Capitalism’, this is increasingly hard to protect. Zuboff argues that many internet business models are based on mining users for our data and services. Some of this insight is used to help the user, as it improves the product, but a lot of the data is either sold to other companies, or the user is not adequately recompensed for the labour they put into using the product. “Users are the objects from which raw materials are extracted and expropriated” says Zuboff.
The purpose of surveillance capitalism is to fabricate predictions, which become more valuable as they approach certainty. This is a new type of market power. Zuboff calls it instrumentarianism — “defined as the instrumentation and instrumentalization of behaviour for the purposes of modification, prediction, monetisation and control”. This predictive power means that businesses can make more money, because they either know how to sell more of their products, or they can create environments in which their critical business needs are satisfied.
Zuboff defines freedom as follows: only a person can imagine and decide what the future holds for them. When we make decisions about how to behave, we then live in a world where that decision has already been enacted. This is like a promise. We promise to ourselves, and to others, that we will behave in a certain way in the future. When we make promises, we are trying to bridge the gap between the known and the unknown.
These methods treat every human as if they are the same, without a right to the future tense. We are simply organisms that behave.
The power which could take away our freedom is named the ‘Big Other’. It reduces human experiences to measurable, observable behaviour while remaining completely indifferent to the meaning of that experience. These methods treat every human as if they are the same, without a right to the future tense. We are simply organisms that behave. Zuboff poetically writes:
“Surveillance capitalism departs from the history of market capitalism in three startling ways. First, it insists on the privilege of unfettered freedom and knowledge. Second, it abandons long-standing organic reciprocities with people. Third, the spectre of life in the hive betrays a collectivist societal vision sustained by radical indifference and its material expression in Big Other” Shoshana Zuboff, Surveillance Capitalism.
Protecting our freedom from surveillance
So, we see that our freedom is inextricably linked with privacy in a digital age. This means that we need to have rules and protections that ensure that corporations do not have access to our private data. And these protections are already in place legally — the GDPR has made it illegal to broadcast and sell protected data. The problem is that many companies continue to break the rules, and that is because not enough money and resource has been put into enforcing the rules that we do already have.
Our freedom is inextricably linked with privacy in a digital age
Another problem is that few people can see the danger that exists when we sign away our freedom. It is a faceless enemy, and many of us are unaware of the part we play in its system. This is one of the biggest battles humanity will face.
* N.B. A lot of this section is taken from my OxTEC report: “Literature Review on Elections, Political Campaigning and Democracy”*
Alice Thwaite is the founder of Hattusia, a technology ethics consultancy and the Echo Chamber Club, a philosophical research institute dedicated to understanding how information environments can be healthy and democratic in a digital age. She teaches an ethics by design evening workshop at Experience Haus and General Assembly in London. Her twitter is @alicelthwaite and her email is email@example.com.