Not so long ago we searched Google. Now we seem quite happy to let Google search us
Probably too late to ask, but was the past year the moment we lost our technological innocence? The Alexa in the corner of the kitchen monitoring your every word? The location-betraying device in your pocket? The dozen trackers on that web page you just opened? The thought that a 5G network could, in some hazily understood way, be hardwired back to Beijing? The spooky use of live facial recognition on CCTV cameras across London.
With privacy there have been so many landmarks in the past 12 months. The $5bn Federal Trade Commission fine on Facebook to settle the Cambridge Analytica scandal? The accidental exposure of a mind-blowing 1.2 billion people’s details from two data enrichment companies? Up to 50m medical records spilled?
Maybe your mind was changed by the New York Times’s Privacy Project, an intensely reported and alarming yearlong exploration of the issue? Or the publication of Shoshana Zuboff’s searing book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism? Was it the growing unease over the probable manipulation of elections the world over? Or that moment when you learned from whistleblowers that Big Tech giants had hired actual humans to monitor Siri and Alexa activations, who ended up listening to couples making love?
Even people whose job it is to think deeply about technology have begun to come out with forms of belated protest or dissent. The Washington Post’s tech columnist, Geoffrey A Fowler, concluded 2019 by writing: “Learning how everyday things spy on us made me, at times, feel paranoid. Mostly, my privacy project left me angry. Our cultural reference points – Big Brother and tinfoil hats – don’t quite capture the sickness of an era when we gleefully carry surveillance machines in our pockets and install them in our homes.”
Fowler’s newspaper – owned by one of the biggest data harvesters of all, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos – was not alone in publishing detailed guides to readers on the steps they could try to recover a degree of privacy online (belatedly, essential reading for Bezos himself, now he knows what it is like to have his own privacy invaded in the most spectacular way). But most commentators agree that such measures are too little too late – maybe 20 years too late. “We were caught off-guard by surveillance capitalism,” says Zuboff, a Harvard professor. “Once we searched Google, but now Google searches us. Once we thought of digital services as free, but now surveillance capitalists think of us as free… The message here is simple: Once I was mine. Now I am theirs.”
The future of privacy is likely to be complicated. For starters, no one can even agree what “privacy” means today. Some argue its first obituary was written 21 years ago when Scott McNealy, then CEO of Sun Microsystems, pronounced: “You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it.” That may, technically speaking, be true. A different question is: have we reached the tipping point when enough people mind?
The traditional response is to argue that privacy has become a bargain. We may all be uneasy about granting so much access to our lives that big corporations know more about us than we do about ourselves… but we are, by and large, happy to trade that data for the (mostly free!) services and convenience we get in return.
So one scenario is that nothing much will change. Elite newspapers and Harvard professors can wring their hands about the human rights implications and the menacing power of the algorithm. But, in the end, the world has moved on and the privacy genie is never going back into the bottle. A second scenario is that there will be some sort of techlash, with consumers increasingly changing their privacy settings – both real and metaphorical.
What’s changed in the past year (this argument goes) is the growing realisation of the sheer scale of what’s happening. You or I might have been reasonably relaxed about Google or Instagram targeting us with tailored ads in return for free email, search or social pictures. But we may draw the line at the newly revealed armies of trackers and data-brokers, traders and compilers who are running riot across insurance, retail, finance, health, education and much, much more. The New York Times found smartphones broadcasting the exact locations of users thousands of times per day through hundreds of apps.
“That”, thundered a NYT editorial, “is not a glitch in the system. It is the system. If the government ordered Americans to continuously provide such precise, real-time information about themselves, there would be a revolt.” And maybe – just maybe – there will be one. Possibly it could take just one more massive hack or leak or breach of data to make even non-NYT readers sit up and take notice.
A third scenario could see a gradual shift in behaviours as new players enter the market, along with new technologies that allow for the better stewardship of personal data. So-called edge computing seeks to move information out of the cloud and back on to personal devices. Think of the developments in the Apple iPhone that seek to do encryption and store biometric information on your smartphone itself rather than pinging information halfway round the globe.
One estimate is that there may be 200 or 300 startups, SMEs and entrepreneurs rethinking the ownership and value of data. Finland’s MyData project is just one high-profile attempt to let individuals regain control of their own data. Other players are exploring how blockchain can strengthen privacy as a basic consumer right. The jury is out – and doubtless will be for a while yet.
The final scenario is regulation. Europe has led the way with GDPR (see the recent thumping £500k fine on Dixons Carphone for not spotting the malicious software planted on more than 5,000 tills). It used to be assumed that the US would be slow to go down this route, but there have been baby steps in Vermont and Illinois, and January 2020 saw the introduction of the California Consumer Privacy Act, which marks a significant change in how west coast companies need to behave. Who will follow?
Our actual loss of privacy will eventually be dated to before 2019, but that was the year we shed our naivety about the scale of the loss. As always in the digital world, the future is unknowable. We may carry on as though nothing has happened. Or everything could be disrupted in the blink of an eye.
“Competitors that align themselves with the actual needs of people and the norms of a market democracy”, says Zuboff, “are likely to attract just about every person on Earth as their customer.”
Now there’s an opportunity.
All Rights Reserved for Alan Rusbridger