Privacy Is POWER — Taming the Wild West of the Data Economy — Book Review
“Oh, so you’re doing history, not philosophy”
“Privacy is dead. Get used to it. Nothing to think about”
These are some gut reactions from friends and colleagues to Carissa Veliz’s choice of privacy for academic study as Associate Professor at Oxford University. More sympathetic responses tried to refocus her on a topic of research with brighter prospects.
Were these doubters justified? Whether we fell into the rabbit hole of privacy by accident, or by design, soundbites like these are frequently heard, and as a technologist myself, the feeling of swimming against the tide is a familiar one.
Based on her book “Privacy is Power”, by putting the ‘death’ of privacy, and rise of the Data Economy in a historical context, Veliz sheds new light on the invasiveness of current power structures, and how vulnerable to regulation, public opinion and collective action they now are.
Veliz’s book starts with a day in the life of a tracked individual which sufficiently lurid to remind me of my festive blowout with Stephen King novels, but an effective break from the norm of academic or ‘compliance’ language around privacy.
Devices, web cookies and corporations really are capturing, analysing and monetising every moment (and indiscretion) of our lives, from lovers’ heartbeats to the keystrokes of emails and social messages which are never sent.
The reduction by tech of people with rights to monetised ‘users’ has been called a fair deal for digital convenience but in reality, from AdTech through to health AI, the value exchange with personal data is unequal, broken or non-existent in the first place.
Even those who won big in this now regret the logical conclusion of the Data Trade; after Facebook bought WhatsApp, Brian Acton, one of the co-founders, admitted “I sold my users’ privacy”.
Still, there is a wide scale of variance in the amount of profiling data when it comes to messaging services, as new research shows:
Facebook is a familiar target as it enabled bad actors like Cambridge Analytica to harvest and weaponize the data of 200 million users via our contacts and the human need to socialise. Google also comes under attack for its control of web advertising and political dialogue (it is by far the biggest spender in the US on lobbying), even as it starts to behave like a regulator itself.
Veliz explodes myths about how much data is needed to keep progress marching along, largely because it’s tempting to think more data = smarter AI, or more personal = better healthcare, so-called ‘magical thinking’.
In fact, data overload may impede our thinking and decision-making capabilities, and doesn’t add value in most cases. Human forgetting is partly a value-add process of filtering what’s important, and in any case most of the ‘training’ for AI’s is done by manually by humans jockeying the software or literally listening in to conversations.
It’s helpful to hear my own thoughts echoed on how valid concerns and best intentions around security were used to undermine our right to privacy. Seen historically, one of the tragedies of the 9/11 attacks was abandonment of planned regulation for data commerce which has only started to be tackled now with GDPR, CCPA & similar laws.
It’s also useful to have analytical, critical light shone onto the efforts of tech and governments to increase surveillance in the fight against COVID, even as this plays out in real time: https://www.zdnet.com/article/singapore-police-can-access-covid-19-contact-tracing-data-for-criminal-investigations/
It will always be a struggle to keep personal data safe when interacting with companies that do not have the public good as their main objective, and in some cases have replaced human organisations which regulate and promote healthy behaviour.
That’s why solutions to the privacy problem need to focus on the collective, and for Veliz the path is clear: “We need to put our full weight behind privacy agencies to make sure laws are enforced. And then we must regulate the data economy into oblivion”.
Where I diverge from the author is her belief, found often in an academic and policy space that there is no role for citizens to monetise their own data, as this will debase our rights and create more ‘collateral damage’.
I think there is plenty of space for tech to enable a New Data Economy with tools to provide smaller businesses and existing social groups with new sources of income and agency and, from the “Yang Gang” in the US to data unions and trusts in Europe and the UK, there is all to play for.
As the author covers engagingly and accessibly, language is power. If we can socialise some of the new concepts around data citizenship then 2021 is indeed a historical moment to end the Wild West of data commerce and set the privacy landscape for the next few decades. Now that’s an exciting topic!