On Tuesday, the Senate passed the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act, which allows companies to more easily share metadata with the government in hopes of preventing cyberattacks. This information would largely be customer data. As Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., puts it, the bill is effectively a “direct pipeline to the NSA” for our personal information.
It is landmark legislation, to be sure, which is why I’m puzzled that I haven’t seen even one indignant Facebook post about it on my news feed. In fact, most of the discussions I have about online privacy boil down to a shrug and a glib remark: “I don’t have anything to hide.”
That’s a lie, of course. As our parents never fail to remind us, we’re the first generation to have most of our lives documented on social media. We’ve had it drilled into our heads for years that what we post could have a huge impact on our personal and professional lives.
Yalies care about privacy insofar as we care about how we present ourselves online. We also tend to demonize the surveillance state, mindful of the dangers of an Orwellian dystopia. What’s equally insidious, however, is the vast amount of information that’s collected by private companies: our search history, our purchase history, how long we spend on a given website, our location, etc. Yet we never bat an eyelash as we connect app after app to Facebook. Our concern for privacy extends just about as far as making jokes about the NSA reading our emails.
Why don’t we care more? Because all this data collection seems benign. Google tells us that it’ll improve our search results. Advertisers tell us that we’ll have targeted ads that are far more applicable to us. We’re even promised that our names and addresses are never stored. But we vastly underestimate just how powerful all this metadata is.
Targeted content can be just plain creepy. In 2012, The New York Times reported about Target’s customer information collection practices. The company has gotten so great at analyzing small bits of user data that they’re able to predict when a woman is pregnant, sometimes even before she knows herself! And as companies collect more and more data, their predictions only get better.
At least for now, these analytics are primarily used for advertising. Even for those of us who use ad-blocking software, however, metadata has a profound impact on our lives. Just last year, Facebook revealed that it was able to manipulate users’ emotions simply by changing the content displayed on their news feeds. Do we really want to live in a world where our mood could be decided for us by an algorithm — or worse, by the highest bidder? This type of information is bought and sold every day, and with the recent spate of attacks against Sony, Anthem Insurance and the Office of Personnel Management, it’s safe to say that it’s stolen fairly often too. These companies and hackers literally have the power to control what we think and how we live.
As Emily Steel and Julia Angwin argued in The Wall Street Journal (“On the web’s cutting edge, anonymity in name only,” Aug. 2010), we are “anonymous in name only.”
For those of you who still insist that your privacy doesn’t matter — that you have nothing to hide — I invite you to give out your social media passwords. Heck, while you’re at it, copies of your keys would be great too. Our privacy matters, and we don’t pay enough attention to it. Think twice when you’re registering for a website. Consider giving those terms of service a skim.
Advertising databases should not know more about you than your friends do.
Shreyas Tirumala is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .