We can’t say we were never warned. From 20th century pop fiction to the wise words of this nation’s founders, history is rife with examples of personal liberties being trampled in the name of an alleged greater good. Today, thanks to technology, we’ve become subject to surveillance for perhaps an even more insidious justification: convenience.
In the past, political activists and academics imagined this problem to be predicated on government action. While governments certainly deserve much of the blame when it comes to infringement on our privacy, the work of keeping tabs on the details of our private lives has, in a sense, become no work at all.
Convenience is the mantra of modern commerce. A formidable argument serves as the basis for the collection of reams of information belonging to the consumer but selling to the highest bidder: the more they know about us, the better they can anticipate our needs and serve us.
Thus, we provide access to our search histories, schedules, conversation logs, and physical locations, thinking that this information will be used to make searching, scheduling, and anticipating our consumer needs more convenient. We frequently post live location updates hoping that the data will contribute to some form of seamless social experience later. Much of this intelligence is voluntarily handed over via social media platforms and smartphone apps. An even greater amount, however, is collected on Silicon Valley data servers housed in unremarkable, windowless brick buildings located somewhere.
In a sense, corporate best practices are the only thing keeping our private data from becoming the property of those who should not be looking at it. The implications are troubling. A world where we no longer value our privacy can quickly morph into Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where government observes and controls everything to micromanage all aspects of human life.
To their credit, tech companies have shown some resistance to sharing their tabs on us with government agencies. Take, for example, the incorporation of passcode encryption technology to the privacy policies of companies like Apple and Google, non-bypassable technology designed to protect us from incriminating ourselves with data found on our Apple or Google devices. Many corporations already lean heavily on national policy. It’s no great leap to assume that the policymakers may lean on them in return.
The data collected on us serves as a dossier. It may not seem like a big deal now, but that information could eventually become searchable — referenced every time you apply for a job or make a large purchase.
Consider China, where government officials have implemented a mandatory “social credit system” that uses private tech platforms to track citizen behaviors and punish any who dare to veer outside government mandated behavior guidelines. The decision to game for too long, spend money on what authorities deem to be frivolous purchases, or post ill-regarded articles online could lead to real punitive consequences. According to a report from Business Insider, Chinese citizens who run afoul of the code could find themselves unable to board an airplane, barred from attending top-tier schools, or even staying in certain hotels. The system constitutes an abhorrent example of what measures the governments can resort to when given access to our personal data.
China’s overreach hasn’t been duplicated — yet. However, nearly 4.39 billion internet and 3.48 billion social users are willingly handing over their private information through social media and e-commerce.
The introduction of incremental checks on the Surveillance State at the highest levels of governmental power is encouraging. While government intrusion remains a threat, we have seen some willingness from elected officials to set boundaries via legislations.
The USA Freedom Act sets a precedent for future reforms in governmental action. The Act, which reauthorized various portions of the Patriot Act, lays the burden of proof on the government. Subpoenaed call records must now be accompanied by “reasonable suspicion,” and a panel of advocates must be called into the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court any time public interest could be jeopardized. If we are going to regulate the government, however, we must also regulate the mega-corporations.
As private companies obtain and store our personal information, it stands to reason that they must also be required to protect the public interest. Last year, in what has been labeled the most important change in data privacy regulation in 20 years, the European Union passed the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, which compels all companies operating online to explicitly request permission to collect customer data. The regulation also has provisions for individuals looking to access the data collected on them — an endeavor that companies previously charged for — and empowers individuals to request certain data deletion. Companies found to be non-compliant are subjected to stiff penalties.
The wide footprint of the EU (Brexit notwithstanding) in world affairs means that we can hope for similar action to be undertaken worldwide. As many tech corporations operate outside the United States, it is expected that they, too, comply with these strong privacy regulations. Firms like Google, Facebook, and Apple are not exempt merely because their headquarters are located outside of Europe.
The GDPR represents the single largest pushback against the encroachment on individual liberties in the digital age, but strict laws are not enough to reinstate our hijacked privacy rights.
We must reinstate privacy as a social ideal. Moving forward, every citizen must remain aware that our privacy rights are something worth fighting for, much as the Founding Fathers of this country made explicit over 250 years ago.
We must choose privacy over convenience in each place they intersect — or else we may someday find ourselves under an American version of the Chinese social code, nervously looking over our shoulders as we add an item to our Amazon cart or post a contentious opinion on social media. After all, in the words of American dystopian novelist, John Twelve Hawks, “Anyone who steps back for a minute and observes our modern digital world might conclude that we have destroyed our privacy in exchange for convenience and false security.”