It’s been an information con job. Companies lulled us into thinking we were simply connecting with our friends, finding our way around town, or locating the perfect sweater. While we were extolling the virtues of each new digital tool and talking up the latest apps to each other, companies were building a multi-billion dollar war chest of information to use against us. As the saying goes, “you are the product.”
Information, data privacy and security concerns are a persistent trend that we’ve been reporting on nearly every year since computers started booting up. And now, the economic stakes, social consequences and technology get more and more serious and complex. Privacy issues used to be centered around evading online activity trackers as they follow you around with ads for things you don’t want (or do you?). Now exposed as central to all too many political and ethical scandals, data privacy has become one of the defining social and cultural issues of our era.
What does privacy mean?
Our need to control what we hide and what we share extends from our very person, to our homes, businesses, communities, and governments. And because of the pervasive nature of technology, the data it produces and carries has burrowed into our lives in ways that we now take for granted.
Pew Research recently reported that “roughly six-in-ten U.S. adults say they do not think it is possible to go through daily life without having data collected about them by companies or the government.”
Andrew Hawn, my former colleague and now founder of MetaForesight, is a technology, media and content expert. Andrew has been collaborating with my analytic startup, Metametrix, and we recently spoke about privacy and its far-reaching implications.
“We’re seeing a social shift in the long term effects of privacy…. As billions more in venture investing targets our personal data for resale in a multitude of ways, people are starting to more deeply question their growing lack of data privacy and control.”
The Healthcare Industry already has lots of protections in place, with HIPAA, and regularly reminds us of how they are protecting us. Meanwhile our wearables are collecting loads of health-related data on us. Who owns that data? And now that Google has bought Fitbit, what’s that going to mean for privacy? Add the millions of people that have given away their DNA to find ancestors and the Google Nightingale project to the privacy issue and it’s clear HIPAA’s going to need an update.
Facial recognition: In what feels like a prequel to Minority Report, people’s physical safety and movements are at risk. Citizens are taking measures to protect themselves from detection, trying to avoid arrests at protests or simply not wanting to share their whereabouts in public settings like an airport.
Last August, CNN reported on varied defensive measures people have taken to protect their privacy – from rudimentary scarves and goggles to incredibly lifelike paper masks used to anonymize protesters. Big Think reported on designers using LED-equipped visors and transparent masks to protect identity. In May of this year, San Francisco became the first city to ban the use of facial recognition software by the city.
We now know that voice-activated devices are listening all the time. Are our phones eavesdropping on us, too, as reported on Marketplace last May? It’s inconclusive, but the investigation suggests there may be more ways we give away information than we realize. We also need to mention all the Ring and Nest doorbell systems capturing video not just from your front door but all around the neighborhood, as well. Ring is actively collaborating with local law enforcement – a practice that is raising privacy questions at the local level.
We’re being swiped right: All the clicks we’ve left behind are being used to rate us. And that can sometimes work against us. A recent piece from The New York Times outlined the industry-for-hire that creates a score for each one of us and sells it to businesses.
“Right, the list goes on and this is just the beginning. Data privacy concerns extend to voting and what data protection means to democracy. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, TikTock, Google all have integrated with brands to hyper target us down to the tap, touch, and like,” Andrew said.
Users fed up with the Facebook dishonesty have started a #deletefacebook campaign, which has had almost zero effect on Facebook other than user self-respect which (fortunately) is still worth something.
Andrew went on to say “The truth is that there is only so much regular citizens can do without laws and policies that empower citizens to retake some personal data power. The EU’s GDPR was a blunt first instrument, and now California’s CCPA is trying to take a slightly smarter approach starting in 2020.”
“Just trying to turn things off by playing whack-a-mole won’t work; we need new innovations focused on protections that are more conversation driven and transparent.”
“Tech companies today are built by some of the smartest people in business – they should be able to work within the bounds of new laws to fix this. Finding ways to claw back and respectfully manage that data will prove essential to all users.”
What this means for business
Until now, consumers have been willing to lend their data (or have unknowingly given it away) to get convenience or information in return. Once they fully realize the consequences of this bargain they will be looking to government and business to safeguard data and hand control back to them, the customer.
Business needs to start thinking now about how to counteract the fear and distrust flooding the marketplace. Can you provide verifiable solutions, traceability and transparency? How will businesses balance upholding privacy concerns without annoying users with privacy notifications and too many restrictions?
Ultimately, if Jaron Lanier is right, and the solution is for consumers to share in the revenue stream as suggested in his treatise, Data Dignity, you best get the strategic planning started now.