The Growing Importance of Privacy and Confidentiality
By Sadira Sittampalam
A lot of people have been talking about online ‘privacy’. However, for most of us, this isn’t something that matters that much. After all, what do I have to hide? Well, it turns out that this is a lot bigger than people finding out about your questionable Google search history. So, here are the most important reasons as to why your privacy should matter, and why you should defend it.
No online privacy laws in most countries
Data is being gathered about you all over the internet. Google, Facebook, Instagram (and more) are all taking pieces of information about you that are pretty private. However, this is not just you - it’s everyone that uses these platforms. So, these companies have massive amounts of data on practically all of humanity - what do you think they are going to do with this data? These platforms are free for us to use, so how do they make money? The answer, as you could probably tell, is advertising. Essentially, our data is the product for these platforms to sell to advertisers.
Right now, they can use this data however they want as most countries don’t have up-to-date, online privacy laws. In fact, the entire FacebookCambridge Analytica Court case in 2018 revolved around how Cambridge Analytica may have improperly harvested up to 87 million Facebook users’ personal data. However, even if you trust Google and Facebook to have some degree of respect for your data, what happens if they get hacked and your information falls into the wrong hands? Would you be okay knowing that your photos, emails or chats are in the hands of someone who can blackmail you? Information in the wrong hands becomes dangerous.
Especially since so much can be taken out of context. Moreover, surveillance does make you act differently. I’m sure we’ve all been nervous to search for a certain phrase because we were afraid it would be flagged by an intelligence organisation. Or even simpler, I’m sure we’ve all not searched for certain things as you don’t want them to affect future search results or ads. If your privacy was guaranteed, you wouldn’t have to worry about how you use the internet. Additionally, data companies can often find out a lot more than you reveal.
There are many things that they can infer about you using your data that you don’t even make public. Furthermore, some of these assumptions about you may be wrong. Perhaps you have a lot of Muslim friends and you live in the US. One day you decide to buy a pressure cooker because you need one for your kitchen. If some antiterrorism agency mined the data, they could easily add you to the no-fly list because you associate with possible terrorists and bought a pressure cooker. While these are very weak bits of proof, these assumptions can still be made, and this can very well affect your life. Lots of people, including American citizens have been put on no-fly lists purposefully after they leave the United States, and therefore are unable to return and are effectively ‘exiled’, for similarly ridiculous reasons.
While you might not care about your privacy right now, conditions may change. Maybe 30 or 40 years from now, you are running for a political position or administration - your private information will be very valuable then and if there is anything there that is even mildly condemning, it can be used against you. Context doesn’t matter when it comes to accusations. If Sony’s hacking has taught us anything, it is that your data can very well affect your life - Amy Pascal, co-chairman of the company, lost her job because of it as her emails exposed her of being critical of certain actors as well as showed the public some distasteful jokes she made about President Barack Obama.
Clearly, it’s not just your job or potential job, it is also the integrity of your company. Can you imagine what it’s like to have a company torn apart because of a conversation you had five or 10 years ago, or even to lose your job because of a conversation you had with someone on a ‘private’ messaging platform? However, this is not all. When it comes to companies online that rely on advertising, it is known that they are constantly trying to get you to buy things so that more advertisers will use their platform; thus, they make more money.
So they will do things on their platforms that make their platforms a lot more addictive. They have all developed special algorithms to make you keep scrolling through their app for as long as possible so that you will be exposed to as much advertising as possible. For instance, on Facebook, people that have liked groups that are anti-vax will be suggested other groups that have similar types of opinions and conspiracy theories. This algorithm doesn’t care if it is true or false, it only cares about making your stay on the app for longer.
Outside of making us more addicted and reliant on these platforms, they are also subtly creating political divisions. We are more divided than we have ever been before, and it is due to social media platforms giving us different answers based on our usage history. To conspiracy theorists, there will only be more proof of how they are right. To people with slightly racist inclinations, it will show validation for their racist opinions and help them become overtly racist. It validates your opinion and helps you to think that the other side is wrong and stupid for not seeing the ‘facts’ right in front of them - but the thing is, the ‘facts’ are different for everyone.
This would be particularly damaging if companies with ulterior motives got ahold of such massive quantities of data, as they can influence people to believe a certain opinion. While it might not happen to everyone, these subtle shifts can greatly affect the real world. For example, the 2015 Cambridge Analytica scandal was so significant as they are a political data analytics firm, who used this data to build a psychological warfare tool that was unleashed on US voters to help elect Donald Trump as President. This is not the only cause of our data being used against us.
In Myanmar, Facebook became one of the key ways in which hate against the Rohingya Muslims was spread, this escalated to the point where a modern genocide has occurred with mass killings which have forced 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee their homeland. These platforms have the power to cause things like this to happen, as it keeps showing people what they want to see, rather than focusing on showing the truth.
Overall, there are a lot of important reasons for you to value and protect your privacy online. However, we alone cannot change anything about these massive corporations. Eventually, it will be up to Governments and laws to enforce privacy - however, we should ensure that this is a conversation that we keep having rather than being something that is quietly accepted. Nevertheless, you can always start by monitoring your own social media use, enabling the various privacy restrictions available to you, and being more informed about how companies use your data.