WASON: Privacy threats must retain public focus


Column: Disputed Territory

Thanks to the freedom of the internet, we live in a world more connected than ever before. 

Information is more readily available for consumption than at any other point in human history and even better — for free. For the very reasonable price of $0, the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram among others allow us to share our lives while connecting with anyone around the globe. YouTube likewise gives us access to more than a billion hours of content for free. 

But does this all really come at no cost? After all, charities usually do not have Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) valued in the billions. So what is it that is worth all of this money? 

It is our privacy — the value of which is now directly dictated by the market.

The monitoring and collection of data is centered around an individual’s every click, and as harmless as it may seem when presented in the context of improving a user’s personal experience, it serves to construct an online identity that we are increasingly being aligned with in the real world without our knowledge, let alone consent. 

While this oft-repeated reasoning for the unabridged collection of data for the improved functioning of a product or experience is arguable in its own right, it is the fact that our data is being used to not only predict but actively influence our behavior, decisions and beliefs that best highlight the careless, if not outright malicious intentions of the companies involved in its collection. 

Media attention toward this issue seemingly peaked during reporting on the Cambridge Analytica scandal and continued through the grilling of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Capitol Hill by various congressional committees last year. Of lesser media fanfare has been his testimony just last week in Facebook’s pursuit to launch a cryptocurrency and its handling of cases of discrimination regarding housing advertisements. 

Although the media interest of last September perhaps had more to do with the scandal’s ripe positioning under the umbrella of Russian interference in the 2016 election than it did much else, it effectively brought the issue of internet privacy to the forefront in dinner-table political discourse. The idea that our personal information could be used to influence our politics is understandably still too much to accept for some, but it struck a chord with society at-large. 

Unfortunately, the market had already long created a safe space for the collection, buying and selling of our data. Consider the breadth of Google’s reach within that of the data-collecting industry and your own life: Google Search, Maps, Docs, Earth, Gmail and YouTube, just to name a few. 

Your location, preferences and personal opinions are all up for sale to the highest bidder. Each time you ask Alexa a question, sure, she may have the answer, but Amazon is collecting your data to fine-tune and increase the worth of the collected data that is your online character. 

Furthermore, an increasing number of industries are beginning to rely on algorithms that create lists based on the characterization of a user’s personal data and online behavior. Risk assessments based on the construction of a user’s image curated by their online data are used by banks, employers and targeted advertising campaigns for a plethora of reasons. 

The problem with this is twofold. Algorithms are too perfect to work in this context within an imperfect society, and the collection of this data is inherently immoral altogether. The data on which these algorithms rely upon, regardless of how intrusive they have become, will inevitably reflect biases in regards to race, gender, sexual orientation and social class as they have existed throughout history.

Then there is the moral context of the problem beyond the obvious action of invading privacy in and of itself: the malicious intent of its use. Should an online casino be able to target advertising toward a recovering gambling addict? Or should predatory lenders be able to target the most financially vulnerable in our society? 

The mythological idea that the tech companies collecting our data or the companies purchasing it are operating out of anything but self-interest should be taken as just that: a myth. The use for the collection, selling and purchasing of online data goes far beyond improving the functioning of a product or user participation. 

It intrudes upon the most intimate of projections of the human experience and seeks to profit off of whatever it finds in whatever way it can. For this reason alone, even when the news media shifts its focus to President Donald J. Trump’s next tweet — do not shift yours. 

This holiday season, as we all surround ourselves with loved ones, let us not forget the importance we as students have in staying informed and leading the political conversations we all pretend we can avoid during these family get-togethers. 

Fair or unfair, the onus is on us to make sure the threat to our privacy remains just as relevant as any of the circus acts taking place in Washington, D.C. 

Amar Wason is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science. His column, “Disputed Territory,” runs on alternate Wednesdays. 

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