In the modern world, it’s easy to understand that data is absolutely essential to many corporations and organizations. There is an ever-growing need to understand the needs and desires of your customer base, so that you may tailor your products/services/platform as much as possible to meet these particular needs. However, we also are coming to a point where human beings are beginning to realize that the way that their data is being used can be quite harmful. One of the most obvious examples is the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, in which data from Facebook’s user base was used to influence a United States political election.
It’s easy to understand the idea that “we are the customer” these days. There are literally billions of individuals that are active on social media platforms, whether they are using Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. We know that we sign up for these services for free, and in return, companies might use or even sell our information to the highest bidder. It’s also understood that there are many different countries that have different laws when it comes to the Internet, and censorship, as well.
This makes for an interesting tug-of-war between tech companies and governments who want access to more information than ever. It isn’t a new problem by any means. India notably banned Blackberry in 2010, only to reach an agreement with the company regarding the interception of messages in 2013. The tech companies might not be excited to give information to these governments, but they also seem to understand that entering new markets has its price. The truth is that sometimes that price is your own internet privacy.
We now have to discuss what exactly is private, and what isn’t. There are all sorts of different reasons for human beings to use social media. We might take to Twitter to voice political opinions that aren’t necessarily popular, and hide our identity in hopes that it doesn’t have any actual personal repercussions. Employers, in some cases, can actually fire employees for what they say on Facebook. After all, companies have their own policies that have to be followed. Many of us understand that we have the right to speak, but that others have the right to challenge or dissect that opinion, as well.
One of the biggest issues regarding data privacy and cybersecurity is the fact that it affects almost everyone. For example, 3 billion Yahoo accounts were reportedly compromised in 2013, and the company was able to suppress just how extensive the hack was. There are other constant examples of data breaches surrounding some of the most powerful and influential corporations in the world. The Equifax hack compromised sensitive information for over 100 million people, and a government report suggests that it was an attack that lasted for over two months. Criminals and corporations are involved in a never-ending race regarding technology, privacy, and what truly is “our data”.
The battle, however, is getting more pronounced than ever. Technology is changing, which allows for information to be stored on the cloud, or blockchain, which might make it more secure, but also has its own drawbacks. One clear situation where human beings are forced to understand the concept of privacy involves smart home devices. We now can speak to devices to access certain information, content, or data, whether it involves asking our Amazon Echo to play a playlist or a Google Home smart device to turn our lights off.
When we speak to these devices, are our conversations private, and do they fall under that category? After all, we are in our own actual homes (many times) during these conversations. While law enforcement normally requires a warrant to enter a home, what if these smart home devices are recording conversations during a specific crime? Last year, a judge ordered Amazon to turn over recordings regarding a double murder case. This ushers in a new era where we now have to consider whether we have privacy from our own devices, which might be surreptitiously recording our conversations.
It also might be easier to consider privacy in an extreme situation when someone is murdered. How about when the incident is a bit more innocuous? If you consider that an Amazon Alexa recorded a private conversation between a married couple and sent the conversation to an individual on their contact list; it is easy to see how data privacy is clearly in jeopardy in a new and frightening way. What was said during that conversation? If smart devices record conversations between two business partners, and send it to a business associate, is it responsible for whatever the consequences are?
What if recorded conversations lead to divorces, or the termination of business agreements? Amazon might be a powerful and influential corporation, but surely they don’t have the right to interfere with our personal and professional affairs like that. In this case, the individual who overheard the conversation contacted the couple and warned them to unplug their Amazon devices. What about situations where they actually WANT to overhear the conversation? If you consider that 10% of Americans already own a smart home device of some kind; it is easy to see how this is an issue that already affects millions of people.
We seem to understand that there are repercussions for illegal actions. For example, if someone was to post the physical address of another Internet user, this would be called doxxing, which is illegal in the United States. The concept of “doxxing” refers to publishing otherwise private information of an individual. However, there are many different states that are still arguing about whether doxing is truly a crime. For example, Kentucky recently passed a bill declaring that doxing is illegal specifically for minors. The bill was passed after a particular incident regarding a student went viral. Todd McMurtry, an attorney for the student, pointed out how social media platforms often speed towards the exposal of a certain identity without thinking about the consequences. He stated: "There are no brakes on Twitter," said Todd McMurtry, an attorney for 16-year-old Nick Sandmann, whose interaction with Native American protester Nathan Phillips went viral in January. "Twitter itself barely has the capacity to monitor its own activity. To put some weight back on the citizens so that they can help fight back when they are doxed would be great to make up for the fact that Twitter barely does anything."
One of the main issues regarding data privacy is how much tech companies control information versus whether the government should step in to protect the right to privacy. However, it’s hard to deny the influence of Silicon Valley over the United States government. While it is true that Facebook was grilled by Congress over the Cambridge Analytica incident, does that mean that any meaningful action was taken or parameters established? There are many that suggest that the CEOs of these companies don’t actually care much about data privacy, and understand that it is leverage for massive profit.
We might think of doxxing someone as a harmless act, but the truth is that it has very real consequences for many people. There are even situations where gamers “swat” each other, which has led to actual deaths. In one such incident, a California man found out the address of a certain individual thanks to a video game dispute, and made a fake 911 phone call claiming that someone at that address had “hostages and a gun”. This resulted in the death of an innocent man, and the California man was sentenced to 20 years in prison. While there are some that might defend prankster behavior, the truth is that a “prank” resulted in an actual murder. As a result, the data privacy must be examined within the context of the fact that an innocent man lost his life because his information was exposed.
There are also others that understand that data privacy often means privacy of our most intimate moments. If an ex-boyfriend or ex-girlfriend threatens to post a sex tape on a social media platform; this is a very real threat that might affect our personal and professional relationships tremendously. How do revenge porn laws fit into our data privacy regulations? The UK might have taken steps to pass data privacy regulations last year, but what about the rest of the world? How do we determine whether it’s time for people to be sent to prison for violating data privacy, while still recognizing that authoritarian governments can use this logic to censor and filter out dissent?
Data privacy will only be discussed more and more as we move towards the future. We now have to worry about deepfake technology, which means that we have to not only worry about our own privacy, but our own image being misrepresented to the point where pornographic videos can be created. San Francisco seems to understand that data privacy includes not allowing the government to recognize our face, but will other cities, states, and countries agree with this kind of logic? It will take a tremendous amount of time and effort to sort through the technological implications of data privacy, and understand what exactly should be in the public sphere and what shouldn’t.