Surveillance ain’t what it used to be. It’s changed a lot, and we should start paying more attention to it.
It’s disheartening to see that online surveillance has reached dystopian levels in some parts of the world — but it’s not exactly surprising. We’ve been slowly giving up on our privacy ever since we started using the internet.
The problem is that technology tends to change faster than society and regulations do. Social media platforms already have hundreds of millions of users by the time we figure out how to regulate them, and even then, it tends to take years of debate until an agreeable policy is implemented — by which time, there has been a significant technological change which hasn’t been accounted for.
Privacy, as a growing body of science shows, is not a human right but also an indispensable ingredient of a healthy democracy.
The recent Facebook hearings have shown just how much policymakers are struggling to regulate internet giants (and at times, even to understand them). Social media knows you better than your friends, and sometimes, maybe even better than you know yourself.
Your data has become a valuable commodity for companies, and a tool in online surveillance and this is a problem.
For starters, a lot of your data is already available. By now, dozens of companies have comprehensive profiles of your browsing habits. You may have downloaded a VPN to keep you safe, but there’s a good chance that information about your browsing habits had already leaked to countless sites. This information might be used for something relatively benign such as serving relevant ads (full disclosure: to an extent this is also done at ZME Science through third parties), but it could also be used for something much more serious.
We’ve already seen that this type of information is used in China to establish a personal credit score — and the same might be done soon in other countries. Your online browsing, shopping, and socializing, could be used to establish things such as your mental or physical health, and could have important implications for your insurance, for instance. This information could also be used in malicious campaigns, for instance in electoral campaigns.
Additionally, it’s hard to know where and when your data is passed on or how it is used. Facebook is facing a fine of $5bn for its part in the notorious Cambridge Analytica scandal. It’s not just companies, either — governments are also sometimes gathering data in questionable fashions.
For instance, even national health services websites often contain tracking, and it’s not always clear why. To add even more complications to the era of online surveillance, smartphones have become nigh-ubiquitous, and smartphones are a privacy nightmare in more than one way. Children’s privacy is also often at risk, in part due to how common smartphones have become.
You can take proactive steps in protecting your online privacy, but that won’t solve all your problems. Dumping Google for DuckDuckGo can be a step in the right direction as your searches will be private and the data won’t be stored, but without proper policy in place, your privacy will always be at risk. If we want to ensure some sustainability to our online privacy, ensuring the support of policymakers is crucial.
The first step towards getting your elected representatives to care is for you yourself to care. Bring this up via email, or check what relevant committees can be contacted in this regard. In the US, the Federal Privacy Council has a legislative membership list of committees and subcommittees related to privacy and surveillance issues. You can contact them and make them aware that this is an important issue.
Following advocacy groups and watchdogs is also important — there may be issues with your online privacy that you might not even be aware of, so staying in touch with a neutral source of information is always a good idea.
Pressuring tech companies to focus on this is also significant. As consumers, we often feel powerless. But if there’s one way to pressure companies, it’s through our money. Supporting companies that value privacy (in reality, not just in sponsored clips) can nudge companies in the right direction.
Lastly, it’s also important to know your rights. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a printable guide is a good place to start for the US,but most countries have some sort of guide to online privacy rights.
It’s never been more important to care about your online privacy, and it seems like we’re entering a now-or-never phase where we either start implementing healthy regulation or face potentially dystopian consequences for the foreseeable future. If we want to steer things in the right direction, the first step is to start treating it seriously. If we don’t do that, we can’t really expect others to do so.