“By clicking or navigating this site, you agree to allow our collection of information on and off Facebook through cookies.” This was the message that greeted me when I opened my page on Monday evening. I promptly clicked “Agree” and rushed to meet a friend for dinner. The notification didn’t catch my attention for more than the minimum amount of time required to dismiss it. Not for a second did I pause to think: “Wait, do I actually want Facebook to have access to my personal information, even when I’m engaging in activities that aren’t even happening on its platform?”
Every day, through small acts such as this, we willingly surrender heaps of our personal information, consciously or not. Google tracks our online activity and ties it to our credit cards; data collection companies are buying users’ data by the millions; Instagram is home to targeted ads and Google maps can automatically figure out where “home” is by tracking the frequency of our movement, without us indicating which location is actually home. Meanwhile, we’re all happily playing along, clicking one “Agree to Terms & Conditions” after another, allowing our social media to plant cookies in our smartphones and laptops and treating every user data leak with a shrug of the shoulders before moving on to check our Snapchat updates.
A few months ago I discussed my concerns with a close friend. Her response was: “Well, you’re right, this is really creepy — but to be honest I’m okay with it. I realize that there’s something fundamentally wrong about it, but every time I get a targeted ad for something I like I’m like: ‘Oh, yes Google, I actually did want to buy that.’ Besides, I have nothing to hide.”
And she’s right. Targeted ads are not just a vicious, evil plot for tech companies to collect our data and direct our purchasing behavior. In fact, they are not all that different from the expert salesperson who can estimate what kind of price range you’re likely to consider once you enter the store. Both use morally questionable methods of profiling you based on a limited pool of data, but ultimately you also benefit from it if they direct you to things you may be interested in buying.
Having something to hide should not be the bottom-line reason for maintaining privacy. It should be about having something to cherish, something that is fundamentally your own and that you don’t want to or simply don’t need to have others know about. As Edward Snowden once said in an interview: “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”
In Greek the work for privacy is “idiotikotita,” which comes from the greek “idios” meaning self. This definition exemplifies precisely why it bothers me to progressively give up my privacy as I move deeper and deeper into the world of social media and digital platforms that store, use and share my data with or without permission. Having a private life is not about having something to hide. It’s not about being a introverted person, nor is it about wanting to keep a distance from others. It’s about maintaining that core element of selfhood, a part of our personality, our relationships, our thoughts that we have an exclusive privilege to and that we, and we alone, can grant or deny access to.
The worst part about this trend of deprivatization is the motivation behind giving up our privacy so casually: It’s just easier. Our phones link our contacts to our text messages, our call logs, our emails. When an unknown number calls, your iPhone can analyze conversations you’ve had across different platforms and suggest who the caller might be. When saving a boarding pass to a flight and searching for the quickest route to the airport, your Maps app will direct you to your departure gate, which has been extrapolated from your boarding pass. If you browse a website on your laptop and decide not to buy anything, ads from the items you viewed will pop up on your Instagram feed on your phone. We find this convenient and often laugh about how “smart” our various gadgets are. And, the truth is, it is convenient. But is convenience really worth sacrificing one of our most fundamental liberties?
May 23, 2017 is, in the eyes of many, the day that privacy died. Google officially announced on that day it would tie users’ credit card transactions to their online behavior. The technology giant had been suspected of this practice back in 2012, when rumors surfaced that it was merging users’ data across different platforms to create a single unified profile which, while anonymous, would be associated to a unique serial number which could be traced back to the specific individual it was linked to. Contrary to the beliefs of many who dismissed the possibility of such a practice materializing, as of last year, it has become an explicit part of Google’s corporate policy.
On January 11 of this year, the U.S. House of Representatives extended the NSA act that allows warrantless surveillance programs of the data of foreign nationals residing in the U.S., even when those individuals are communicating with U.S. nationals. This is only one of the many ways in which the Patriot Act has influenced and infiltrated U.S. legislation and governmental policies. It is an example of the government using fear as a tool to push people into giving up more and more of their privacy.
And we shouldn’t be fooled into thinking that this is a policy that governments and corporations just happen to adopt concurrently. The trend of deprivatization is, largely, based on a cooperation between digital corporations that use their access to users’ data to form a digital profile on them and governments who either purchase that information or use legislative procedures to procure access to it. Many intelligence agencies no longer require warrants to access individuals’ information — all they need is their Facebook profile, Gmail account or Twitter handle, and they can form a comprehensive picture of anyone’s tendencies, beliefs and professional and social networks.
But why would governments base their surveillance programs so heavily on the online activity of individuals? Why outsource such an important and sensitive task to private institutions? Because of this loophole in the legislative system, using information collected from third-party institutions rather than the government allows the latter to circumvent the traditional due process required to access individuals’ private information. This is why, according to the directors of the documentary “Terms and Conditions May Apply,” the CIA has almost exclusively been using Facebook data to gather information on people since 2004. And the CIA is not alone in this practice. The NSA, FBI and a number of other intelligence services also use social media profiles to gather information on users.
And why would they not? When we willingly put our private information on public platforms, we personally jeopardize our privacy. Why should the government or law enforcement services bother with costly, time-consuming processes like warrants to access our private information when we so conveniently put them on digital media platforms that can be easily accessed and analyzed?
Whenever this approach to privacy causes brief moments of public uproar, our elected officials switch to a greatly overused buzz-phrase: It is done to protect ordinary citizens from those who wish to harm them. However, what we have seen in recent years is that, no matter how expansive and sophisticated governmental surveillance systems become, there is no way to guarantee people’s safety. Acts of terror, whether international or domestic, still occur. And while there is no way to figure out how many of those acts have been prevented through the use of surveillance technologies, we can see the consequences of such policies on the lives of ordinary civilians and the effect that they have on how our society values and respects an individual’s right to privacy.
We can no longer control if our data will be collected. The technology is so advanced and pervasive, and the tech industry so dominated by quasi-monopolies and increasingly powerful cartels, that opting out is hardly an option. What we do have some control over, for now, is setting restrictions on how the data that is being collected on us daily can be used. We won’t have that power for long; the recent trend of deprivatization illustrates that, once a precedent has been set, it is hard to reverse. The only way to protect whatever is left of our right to privacy is to keep up with what’s happening in the world around us, and voice our opposition clearly and strongly when we feel like a line has been crossed. This conversation is not about having something to hide. It’s about standing up for something that is worth protecting: a right to our identity, our self, our future — the right to privacy.
Sophia catsambi | firstname.lastname@example.org .