In this section, we bust some commonly believed myths about digital privacy. Too often, internet users don’t think their data is significant or that caring about your data somehow means you must be hiding something. This section covers topics like consent in the digital age, technological innovation, national security, and data collection.
You hear it all the time: while companies like Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Apple might not be perfect, it’s undeniable that they are leading innovators, job creators, and paradigm shifters. Implicit in this rhetoric is the idea that the end can justify the means, that the unethical commodification of your personal data and violation of your privacy rights are necessary casualties in a broader narrative of techno-social innovation.
Look at the discourse surrounding Google’s “Smart City” in Toronto: the actual details of the project are unclear, privacy concerns are abundant, yet critics of the initiative are often labeled as boring techno-pessimists: “Why can’t Torontonians be happy that Google chose them for this attempt at urban revitalization, regardless of its potential to harm the city’s most vulnerable?”
One of the most popular justifications for the violation of privacy rights is safety: the idea that in order to maintain decorum in public spaces and enforce ownership of private property systems of surveillance must be in place to prevent wrong-doing.
While true to an extent, it is fundamentally problematic to situate basic privacy rights in opposition to national and local security, effectively writing a blank cheque for the state to violate your privacy in order to “make the world a little safer”.
There are ways to protect safety that don’t involve stripping people of their basic privacy rights, and more importantly, we ask: safety for who? Invasive surveillance structures disproportionately affect people of colour, queer people, and poor people. We believe that the fight for privacy rights is also a fight for a type of data safety: safety from racial profiling, police violence, the release of sensitive personal information, etc.
Many people frame the push for privacy rights as “too little, too late”, instead arguing that data collection is so fundamental to life in 2018 that regulating consent is no longer possible and our best hopes lie in regulating use. Basically: “we can’t stop big companies from stealing our data, but maybe we can limit how they use it”. Imagine applying this logic to any other form of labour or property: “we can’t stop the bully from stealing our money, but maybe we can ask him to use it at stores we like.”
This defeatist attitude dismisses the real political work being done to regulate those who profit from the commodification of personal data and violation of basic privacy rights, like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation this May, or non-for-profit initiatives fighting for privacy rights on a local level.
No matter what you do online, your data is tracked, collected, and analyzed by private businesses and governments. This puts a lot of power into the hands of major corporations that may gather and sell this information without your direct permission or knowledge. You can never be too sure that third parties acquiring your information are trustworthy and secure sources.
While many people believe that the information they leave behind is insignificant, it is free labour for companies. Someone is not only profiting from your every search to improve their advertising strategies, but they are also gaining power to shape your decisions and opinions. Data collection about demographics, interests, opinions on various issues can also foster prejudices towards communities, and perpetuate systems of oppression.
The common belief is that we either have nothing to hide or we aren’t important enough to be targeted online. The reality is that the digital footprint you leave behind while browsing the internet is not only the information you choose to disclose. In fact, the traces of information you leave behind unintentionally paint a fuller picture of who you are as a person.
Truth be told, we all have things to hide. You probably wouldn’t want a website to broadcast to the world your emails, medical history, how much money you earn, or private conversations. Privacy is not about hiding from the world; it is about having your privacy rights respected. You should not feel like you have to settle for sharing your personal information in order to gain access to an online service.
Digital privacy is more than the choices you make for yourself. While you might think that your data is not important, for some people privacy has greater ramifications, sometimes it’s even a life or death situation. When you fight for your privacy rights, you are also fighting for the people for whom privacy is really important.