Why Privacy Matters: Snowden and Cambridge Analytica
Today, I would like for you to think about privacy and why it matters.
About a year ago, Cambridge Analytica was involved in a privacy scandal concerning advertising profiles from Facebook and Russian interference in the 2016 US election. More recently, Edward Snowden has released harrowing information on the mass surveillance of global and United States citizens.
Facebook had suspended the account of Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that had been involved in aiding political campaigns by harvesting the online profiles of about fifty million of Facebook users. Even though there were a variety of responses, many users seemed deeply concerned by the thought that their privacy was being robbed. But this is something that has been happening long before Facebook.
Data was Already Big Business
Facebook was doing what many companies do, that is create profiles of their users by categoizing their activities, and then using those profiles to help advertisers market efficiently to users most likely to be interested. Because of the context of the election, this was then interpreted as malicious by many people because politicians and their campaign strategists were using this data.
The Public Response to Obvious Privacy Violation
There were a variety of responses to the Cambridge Analytica Scandal:
- We all knew this happened anyway?
- Delete Facebook.
- Skepticism. This is just another political move, why are we hearing about it now?
- Serves you right. That’s what happens when you choose convenience over security?
But everyone was concerned in some way about what had happened, whether due to the intrusion into people’s personal privacy, or being aghasted by the manipulation of data for political means, or that it was hidden. There’s a reason why it sparked something though in so many people.
If the world is a place in which we explore, most of us would like to have some autonomy in the way we choose to explore it. Autonomy is the ability to act independently. The public began to wake up again or be reminded of the importance of privacy.
What is Privacy?
When I think about privacy, I think about having the space to express oneself.
Or I consider people who have had their privacy removed. Let’s not just rely on my own definition.
Privacy is the ability of an individual or group to seclude themselves, or information about themselves, and thereby express themselves selectively. The boundaries and content of what is considered private differ among cultures and individuals, but share common themes (Wikipedia)
the quality or state of being apart from company or observation : seclusion — privacy in a sentence (Merriam-Webster)
The Layers of Privacy
The most private area we have is the one in between our ears. It’s where we communicate with ourselves and the space we have the most control over sharing. First, is the innermost circle, the self. Then there’s the next sphere we may influence as we let ourselves radiate out into that space, and that can go even greater.
Moving on from the inner world – We may decide to put some information into the world, verbal when we say something, non-verbal in the way we act, that says something. That gives information about us. We may say something to one person that we do not say to another. That could be for a variety of reasons. Maybe as a protection mechanism, because someone may have bad intentions.
It is also important to consider that privacy is a way of protecting the person you wish to keep information from. Say, to a child. to protect innocence. But maybe it has nothing to do with fear but is just because, if we think of ourselves as an ongoing creation, and think of life as the art piece, us being one part, maybe we don’t want to add that texture there, or that color there in that way. So it’s just a way of choosing. And we act differently depending on who is watching.
However, privacy doesn’t necessarily have to be about protection at all, it could just be about creation and creating oneself. The way I see the world is that we are all sort of art in motion. What I mean by this is that we are all creating ourselves. It might not be that you fear someone seeing something; it might just be that you wish to present yourself or be perceived in a certain way. If someone takes that ability away from you, they are essentially meddling with how you choose to express yourself into the world.
My point is that we have these different spheres that get larger and we have to be more discerning about what information we share. even more discerning at each level as we go out.
Trust plays a big role here. The need for privacy becomes less pronounced if you trust someone. And people have varying levels of that. Maybe Anna doesn’t mind, but Michael really does.
The Ability to Choose Privacy
Well the best scenario would be that Anna can choose to share, because she doesn’t mind sharing, and Michael can choose to not share, because he does mind sharing.
You may not mind someone accessing your information, if you do trust that person with that particular bit. But others might. So there are those who may be okay with sharing their information, when others are not. That is the issue we are wrangling with here: how to make it so that different people can choose how much to share at each level, since different people have different degrees of comfort.
At the beginning, I mentioned that privacy was being robbed. I would like to focus on the word “robbed” because it came up very quickly when I started contemplating the concept of privacy. When you are being robbed of something, it means that you own it. Your thoughts and expressions that you put out into the world originate and emanate from you as an individual. You might use someone else’s medium to share them with the world, but they are still coming from you.
Even though you are using someone else’s property, you are only using it as a channel for a specific purpose and once it falls outside that purpose then there is a violation of your privacy.
So if you are not allowed to choose, you are being robbed of the right to create yourself, as the self is an amalgamation of your own projection into the world, and the world’s perception of you. After I thought of that I realized I used the word rob. Meaning someone else is taking something that belongs to the person being robbed.
That thing is the ability to choose which part of ourselves we express into the world. That is we own our thoughts because they originate and emanate from us. If you think a little more this extends to lot of other rights too, but they all come from the idea of self-ownership.
Humanity’s Historical Relationship to Privacy
Let’s dig a bit deeper and consider how humanity’s relationship with privacy has shifted over the years. When did privacy laws come into existence?
In the past it was much more difficult keep some part of yourself private while the rest of you was in the world, i.e., I could not get on a webcam and start recording myself in selective exposure. I could interact with someone in front of me, but the technology to communicate something, anything, would have been limited physically.
It was difficult to find when privacy became a legal standard. It was easier to find this in recent times, most likely an outgrowth of the fundamental need for privacy.
There are privacy laws about the storage and use of personal information:
• Communication privacy laws
• Financial privacy laws
• Health privacy laws
• Information privacy laws
• Online privacy laws
• Privacy in one’s home
They have to do with the right to ownership of self, even as information is transmitted across a third-party’s medium. There were laws protecting written communications, such as the census and the mail. This used to be about being in the public space.
But is a space defined as public if you are using other people’s technology, which they created but the majority of people use? Historically, no. The concept of privacy in law was later applied to new technologies at the time, such as the telegraph and the phone. And that is how the concept of privacy has developed over the years.
Snowden Shows Us Why Privacy Matters Today
Nowadays, thanks to whistle blowers like Edward Snowden, the public now knows that privacy violations are made ubiquitously by the American government on US and international citizens. Snowden exposed the National Security Agency (NSA)’s massive surveillance of citizens through the Foregin Intelligence and Surveillance Act (FISA).
Snowden details more recently in his new book, Permanent Record, that most global internet traffic passes through America, no matter who is on the Internet in the world. And that the recent lack of respect for privacy in government, was a direct response to the events of September 11, 2001, when the United States was attacked by Islamic terrorists groups, by plane . The result was proactive threat detection, at the expensive of privacy and retaliative terror in the middle East. It is also difficult to not imagine the likely abuse of this data in government hands.
Regardless of whether Snowden was right or wrong to release classified information in the manner that he did, it is clear that the world is losing its privacy. And privacy is a fundamental human right.
I will be covering Snowden’s book in more detail once I have finished reading it. I am about halfway through, and you can catch my update here.
Modern Day Application of Privacy
Privacy has become a lot more important over the years due to the explosion of information technology. I remember having to walk to the principals’ office to get her to call my mom to pick me up from school. And talking to my friends on the landline to keep in touch when there was a hurricane. (I grew up in Jamaica). I remember having to hand in homework for my IT class on a floppy disk. Then one day I had a Nokia brick phone. Then Msn Messenger. Then I had a 256 mb thumb drive. Then suddenly I had a laptop.
The technologies have grown more quickly than the ethics surrounding them.
Looking at the modern day advancement of technology, to begin with, privacy in cyberspace would involve the ability to choose what information one would like to share about oneself. It is one of those familiar values that seems un-problematic until we start to think about it.
Privacy is Still a Fundamental Human Right
Privacy is still definitely a fundamental human right. We may not need the UN Human Rights Charter to tell us so, but it does. But different countries have different ideas of what should and should not be protected. Privacy laws protect different types of information and they are not only concerned with the medium that you use to communicate information but also in the storage of your personal information.
Some of that kind of information could be medical information. For example when you go to the doctor, you have to share some information with the doctor but you are only sharing such in the context of helping you get well. There are laws that prohibit the doctor or someone else from using that information for a different purpose. There are also financial privacy laws as well as those that are about protecting one’s privacy in their home.
There is increasing institutional interference in the average person’s command of his privacy, through legal and illegal means. Just as in the United States where there exists a Foreign Intelligence Survey Act, and the NSA gets surveillance warrants against foreign spies, countries that have authoritarian regimes tell their citizens what they basically can or cannot do and monitor them to see their activities.
However, it’s important to understand that it’s not just the government that wants access to user data. With the continuing emergence of new technologies, we must become more careful and critical with regard to commercial interests for whom personal data is a valuable commodity to be bought and sold. Many vendors of online products have begun to incorporate personalization features into their search-and-retrieval interface, inviting users to create personal profiles and online repositories where they can record their research interests, search strategies, and favorite articles.
Trust, New Technology, and Privacy
It is becoming increasingly difficult to protect user privacy since our understanding of privacy has shifted as our technology has shifted. When online, it’s not physical space that our bodies interact in but it’s another kind of space. Privacy always mattered. But it matters even more because the technologies we use are still burgeoning and we have to l learn how to navigate the new space.
The way we share our personal information has become more complex over time. And the laws need to expand and become as complex. Our communication technology is no longer just limited by our own bodies, but the tools that are outside of our physical social interaction.
Our new technologies, as we use them today, require trust. Trust that the third-party who owns the communication medium or has access to the information sent through that medium, will respect the user’s privacy. The current reality is that, even though there are laws that are put in place to protect our human right to privacy, they require trust. Though we may one day be able to put faith in this trust, it would be unwise to, and we don’t need to, do that today.
The real solution would be to create a systems that are trust-less, where we do not need to rely on others or technology that is not completely dependable. We may not always need to rely on MasterCard or Visa or the storage of our medical information in databases with compromised security.
And that is the next advancement for humans when it comes to our relationship with privacy. Privacy and trust are closely intertwined. If we can decrease the level of trust required for strangers to run our technology efficiently, we can be more sure to protect our privacy while advancing technologically.
Conclusion – Why Privacy Matters
To conclude, privacy is a huge part of our social experience and how we interact with the world. The way we interact with the world is becoming even more complex and so the technology that we use has to match this.
The best case scenario is to have a “trust-less” system where, for example, in the case of what happened with Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, all the users who had different responses to what happened are able to decide how much they are willing to share, without having to depend on the words of private companies.