There has been a lot of talk in the news about the weaponization of social media. What is often not discussed in these arguments is the interconnectedness of social media and digital, data privacy. While a great deal of attention has been paid to hacked and/or misused information (such as the Cambridge Analytica fiasco), the issues with digital privacy are much deeper than the lack of accountability by Facebook or Twitter.
Even with all of the ink (digital and analogue) spilt on the topic, most individuals do not understand what data privacy is, why it’s important, or how it is used. The reality is that laws and regulations have not kept up with the rapid influx of computing devices and interconnected experiences in the world. As such, our information is out there – available to the world in never before seen ways, with unprecedented access and consequences. And social media (where some people argue you offer up your information freely) is not the sole bastion of privacy invasion. Internet search histories in your own home, household shopping tied to rewards or even credit cards, email exchanges, browser history, even parking data all fall into this realm of unprotected data privacy. Even more disturbing is that many of us (and our children) have smartphones which have become a portable GPS, telling our apps (and whoever they grant access to) a history of our daily travels.
Because we have virtually no regulations on how these firms collect, use, and share our data, digital privacy has become practically non-existent in the United States. The consequences for this are quite dire. For example, because we have no data privacy, it has given hostile, foreign governments an insight into our collective psyche and an avenue to sew greater decent. While Russian election meddling news coverage largely focused on conservative and right wing voters, the Russian governments insidious methods also focused on people of color. A report recently issued to the United States senate reported that Russian bots specifically targeted African Americans on Facebook and Twitter; the likely result was lower voter turnout and stoking of racial tensions and divisions in the United States.
Congress has failed to educate itself on how the internet and computing tools work, highlighted in their interviews of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Google CEO Sundar Pichai. While coverage (and internet memes) focused on how clueless law makers are about “how the internet and technology work,” the real concern here should be how little congress has invested in learning about these tools and thus instituting effective protections for their constituents.
While there has been some focus on data privacy, the small and attainable semblances of it are still reserved for those who can pay. Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, was lauded for his speech in Brussels in which he lambasted his fellow Silicon Valley technologists for their lack of concern over privacy and highlighted that Apple does not participate in data mining and distribution. However, Apple products cost a premium for their users (often 20-30% above their competitors), reserving Apples protections for those who can afford to pay.
This is not the bastion of only online tools and hardware. In my city of Miami, the Miami Parking Authority has just announced that they will be raising parking rates for non Miami-Dade residents starting January 1. Residents will receive a discount if they register with the Park Mobile app. While this may seem benign, a little digging demonstrates that the only individuals able to register with the park mobile app must have a smartphone and a debit or credit card, meaning that it will cost a premium for the county’s poorest residents. Additionally, Park Mobile is not a government app. Rather, it is owned and operated by the BMW Group (the largest car manufacturer in the world). This means that unless users are okay with handing over their name, address, license plate number (tied to their vehicle), and credit card along with their data privacy for where they go and where they park (along with geo-location which is enabled on the app) to a for-profit car manufacturer, they will also pay 20% or more for parking in the city of Miami.
The reality is, we live in a hybrid, digital-analogue world and these services are no longer “optional” for operating in it. Going without a smartphone and/or internet use is akin to “dropping of the grid” and makes day to day activities such as: getting work done, parking, depositing checks, and other routine actions all the more difficult, time consuming, and more expensive (or even impossible). Data privacy is more crucial than ever. We cannot rely on these companies to regulate themselves. In fact, they have proven that they will spend millions of dollars to prevent just that. The New York Times did an amazing (and disturbing) expose on Facebook’s role in Russian interference in the 2016 election and its ongoing attempts to cover up their own culpability.
While the United States has been slow to act, other than with some limitedly enforced laws relating to children’s data (see COPPA and FERPA), Europe has started to address this issue with a heavy hand. The much publicized GDPR initiative in the EU has removed the physical barriers tied to data lies and recognizes that data storage and transition operates on a global scale. It allows users to better manage their online privacy. The United States, however, has been slow to regulate and adopt. This has in part has been hampered by a lack of understanding of this issue on Capital Hill coupled with powerful lobbying by digital giants such as Facebook and Google. However, we need to do more. This issue will continue to expand and creep into our lives until it is omnipresent. If our representatives won’t address data privacy, then we as constituents must force their hands. California passed a sweeping digital privacy law just this year, it is time for other states and lawmakers to follow suit. Digital privacy is not a partisan issue, it’s an American one.