Why Is Our Relationship With “Privacy” So Confusing In The Digital Age?

The Atlantic’s tech podcast Crazy/Genius returns for its third season, themed “Unbreak the Internet.” In this first episode, host Derek Thompson asks: Are we really victims of privacy infringement—or just hypocrites? In the last 150 years, citizens have had privacy freakouts about the telegraph, the telephone, the postcard, and even the intrusive nature of background music on buses (seriously, it was a Supreme Court case). But today, the threat is of a different nature. Harvard researcher Shoshana Zuboff says the desperation of tech giants to harvest our personal data could lead to a flurry of Cambridge Analytica-type scandals, which strikes at the heart of our idea of democracy.

In his final analysis, Thompson explores how privacy may be the “climate change of the Internet”—an invisible collective threat, whose risk grows with each data emission. Let’s explore the three points that are mentioned in this podcast and see how they can be understood and related to all of us at an individual level.

Where did this qualm over “privacy” stem?

As it turns out, people have been worried about their privacy dating back to the 1700s. The interesting pillar is that “privacy is one of those values that doesn’t surface until it’s violated, so people don’t worry about it until they think they don’t have it,” according to Sarah Igo, author of The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America.

The pivotal turning point that changed our relationship to privacy was the introduction of new technologies, such as the postcard, photography, and telephone line. All of a sudden, people could read your personal business in your mail, someone could take your photo and use it without your knowledge, and communication lines became porous.

Essentially, from the 1700s to the mid-1900s, privacy laws shifted from the privacy of your land and property to privacy of your communication and the right to control your own image.

From wiretapping to surveillance breaches and psychological technologies, we have experienced a ton of privacy invasions in the 20th century. As we live more of our lives online, it seems more companies are spying on us and using their findings for a capital gain, and in return, we get targeted information, ads, and our data mined. There seem to be many measures in place to keep the privacy of the corporate elite and less privacy for the individual citizen.

Surveillance Capitalism: A Privacy Crisis

According to Shoshana Zuboff, “behavioural data is the ivory driving huge revenues in the capitalist world, and the individuals are the carcass that is left behind once we have been stripped of all our information that they deem valuable.”

So it seems, from Thompson’s discussion with Zuboff, that Surveillance Capitalism “claims private human experience as a free source of raw material. Our behaviour online (clicks, views, and search history) is the raw material that is sold and purchased in a marketplace that specializes in bartering human experiences.”

How was this all discovered? Well, our reliable lifeline, Google, discovered this untapped resource at the beginning of the millennium, when they were in the process of gathering their consumer’s behaviour to determine how to adjust their search engine. Before they knew it, they had, by accident, collected a wealth of information that had tremendous predictive value. Today, the powerhouses like Amazon, Google, and Facebook mine this information and use it against us to predict and determine what our future behaviour online will be.

And it hasn’t stopped at that! From “smart” kids toys to kitchen appliances, they can each into every aspect of our lives. The behavioural data and voice recognition bites that are collected are in high demand in our economy.

Our world is being polluted in more ways than one.

The worst part of this capitalist heavy predicament is that we all know it’s going on, and yet we have no idea how to control it, which is why it is so dangerous. These companies don’t care about us as individuals. Instead, they see our movements and secrets as a means to an end.

Julia Angwin, long-time investigative reporter, states in the podcast that this is not so much a privacy issue, but a “pervasive unregulated data collection” that she coins as “data pollution.” For her, it goes hand-in-hand with environmentalism.

She points out that “we might not know what data we have given up until it’s used against us – manipulate our voting, increase our insurance premiums, or show up on our credit scores.”

As a result, Thompson concludes the podcast with the thought that privacy is not merely an individual threat, but a collective one, much like climate change. But, as he states, “what is the alternative? These tools are not a choice, as they are the utilities of modern life.”

As we are forced to get online and integrate these products into our health care systems and clinics, it’s essential to take note of the infringements and potential breaches in security. Taking extra measures by signing up for our secure privacy compliance consulting  and cyber liability insurance will give your clinic and clients peace of mind, and a solution to this ignorantly forced participatory surveillance supply chain. The more we stand together, the better the laws will get and the harder it will be for companies to profit off of our experiences and engineer our futures.

Brightsquid can help you protect your practice from new, ever-evolving threats with a full Privacy Impact Assessment, privacy compliance training, secure communications tools, and cyber insurance. Contact us today to learn more.