In our interconnected lives, everything we do is online. Whether that is talking to friends or playing games, to the temperature to our thermostats to what content we read and watch. Having everything connected in this way has made things extremely convenient: forgot to lock your front door? Just press a button in an app and your home is secure. Want to talk to a complete stranger a few continents away? Do that, and there’s no absurd long-distance-call fee attached, either. All of this convenience comes with a caveat, however. With everything on the internet, it is trivial for someone to connect nearly every aspect of our lives. Unfortunately, this is actually the reality we live in, and the majority of people don’t even realize. Privacy is an instrumental right that people may not even realize they have, and that right has been trampled over by cooperations and governments alike.
Most people don’t even realize how much data is collected. Some companies sole purpose is to piece together someone’s entire life from their digital trail: their social media posts, messages, pictures, location data, etc. It’s a lot like trying to figure out who someone is by digging through their trash. The reality is that a company like Facebook may know more about someone than people intimately close to them; they can know someone’s age, gender, sexual orientation, economic status, and job, just to name a few. This process of gathering information on users is called “profile building,” with the goal to build an accurate digital replica of you based off of your personal data. From there, that information is then sold to advertisers, all in order to target ads better. In a blog post, Signal, developer of a privacy-oriented messaging app, says that “Facebook is more than willing to sell visibility into people’s lives.” Did you ever knowingly consent to give this information away? Chances are you didn’t, and nether did the rest of social media users. Regardless, every major social media platform practices this practice and profits from this practice, and users may not even know.
You can theoretically opt out of this data collection (though I don’t ever remember opting in). However, I can wager that the vast majority of people have not gone through the process of filling out legal documents to tell companies please don’t sieve through my personal life to give me an ad about shoes. Right now, the law simply has not caught up with the market; privacy protection laws such as the GDPR and the California Privacy Protection act are good stepping stones, but they are filled with loopholes that are happily exploited. Here’s a personal example; a long time ago I went to a bicycling gym. It was a modern gym: your stats were tracked, so you could see how hard you were working. However, if you actually wanted to see those stats, you needed to make an account with Strava, a fitness tracker app. Me, being curious, made an account, downloaded the app, and went on with my day. A few years later, I receive a random email from Strava. Because I haven’t used it in a long time, I decided to just deleting my account, since there is some personal information on it. However, as it turns out, there is no easy way to delete your account. To do so, you need to send a notarized letter to the legal department of Strava with a copy of a government ID, a document proving my address, and a complete 3D scan of my face. Ironically, even if I were to provide all that information, it wouldn’t of mattered because I would have needed to be 18 to submit this information, which I was not at the time. So, in order to create an account I just need to be 13, but in order to delete it I need to be 18, and the person on their support staff who I contacted thought that this was completely reasonable.
There is no easy solution: government intervention is not likely. However, the largest hurdle to proper privacy rights is that there’s no public support. The majority of the public still don’t know the extent of data being extracted and sold, and those who do rationalize it as the price that needs to be paid in order to access social media. It’s mystifying why the public acts so nonchalant about the data they put online, because as Guardian press Dylan Curran puts it, “This information has millions of nefarious uses.” Due to the reactive instead of proactive nature of legislation, especially in the United States, there will likely be no federal legislation on privacy unless a massive event occurs that sparks public interest. An event that came close was the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but interest in reinforcing privacy rights was still short-lived. Until then, all I can hope is that people become less ignorant about their rights and begin to fight to protect them, lest we want the concept of privacy to become a foreign term.