The Secret War on Privacy [New Guide]

With every advancement in technology comes outcry from civil libertarians and privacy advocates claiming that this will be the end of privacy as we know it. There was an outcry in the 1990s about Caller ID and its privacy implications. In today’s world, Caller ID is a completely trivial feature built-in to our incredibly advanced smartphones. According to Niskanen Center, “many new technologies go through this ‘privacy panic cycle’.” This involves privacy advocacy groups feeding media outlets, who then exaggerate the risks associated with these new technologies because readers are drawn to negative news. While there doesn’t need to be a panic surrounding every technological advancement, more general awareness about the privacy issues with mainstream products is a good thing.

In a 2018 survey, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration found that from 2015 to 2017, levels of concern about privacy are generally decreasing over time. The survey also indicated that the number of activities that people are avoiding due to privacy concerns is also decreasing. There has been this sort of privacy creep in the past few years. Much of this is due to technology as a whole becoming more intrusive into people’s lives and people continue to compromise on their privacy stance to adopt these new tools and services. The increased connectivity and platforms for sharing personal data are the biggest contributors to this shift.

Tech Companies vs. The People

20 years ago, if you would have asked people if they would let you put a “listening device” in their homes that would answer their questions, but would record all of your conversations for marketing and advertising purposes, most people would decline. Now, as people have been conditioned to feel comfortable sharing their data, people are willing to pay for these devices and use them all the time.

The companies that develop these data collection tools disguised as utilities and communication services are influencing people’s ideas about privacy. People express concerns about a given product and then the company explains how “privacy is their number one priority”. However, we think this is hypocritical as companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook continue to collect user data on a massive scale. Privacy and security experts are advocating for more control over their data and limits on how these companies collect data. Tech companies, on the other hand, are pushing for legislation and regulation that supports their business models.

Read More: 98 Things Facebook Is Tracking About You (and Everyone Else)

Who is Lobbying Against Consumer Privacy?

Facebook is actively lobbying against privacy laws in the US, and around the world. Unfortunately, the US government has also spoken against Americans’ privacy rights. The FBI demanded that Apple include an encryption backdoor to give access to the San Bernadino terror attacker’s iPhone. Edward Snowden leaked the NSA’s PRISM program in 2015. Data from companies like Google is incredibly valuable for law enforcement groups. Because Google tracks people’s location almost constantly, linking suspects in criminal investigations to a crime scene is an easy job.

An article in The New York Times explains, “Technology companies have for years responded to court orders for specific users’ information. The new warrants go further, suggesting possible suspects and witnesses in the absence of other clues. Often, Google employees said, the company responds to a single warrant with location information on dozens or hundreds of devices.”

If Google’s response to warrants and subpoenas is to give as much information as possible, it could expose people to unnecessary inconveniences. Law enforcement needs to prove that the information they’re requesting is relevant to their case and tech companies should not respond with overly broad data. If tech companies are unwilling to stand up to law enforcement to protect their users’ privacy, it is each user’s responsibility to limit the data they let companies collect about them. While Google data alone is not enough to prosecute someone, it still presents major privacy concerns for anyone who is being actively tracked by Google.

Why Is Privacy Bad For Tech Companies?

The biggest tech companies rely heavily on user data to “improve their products”. Social media sites, like Facebook, use this data to feed their algorithms or to target advertisements. Other companies collect data from people using their products and then sell that data to other companies. If legislators pass strict privacy protection laws that protect consumers from the data collection and tracking that these companies rely on, their profits will take a hit.

The most popular tools are some of the biggest privacy violators. Part of what makes these tools so popular is the convenience and ease-of-use that results from massive amounts of data collection and aggregation. Google uses information about how billions of people interact with their products on a daily basis. As a result, it can infer based on past behavior what a given user is interested in and what they’re likely to click on.

If Google, Facebook, and other tech companies are suddenly unable to have clear information about how people use their products, they won’t be able to monetize that data, either through ads or selling that information.

10 years ago, Google’s data profile about you could probably give them a rough idea of who you are and how you behave. That data has become very precise because people interact more often with more devices.

Read More: Is Regulation the Next Step for Companies like Google and Facebook?

The Economist wrote about “The War on Privacy” back in 2006, when privacy concerns arose surrounding how airlines collected and used passengers’ personal details. There were large disparities, even then, between the American and European privacy norms and practices. American companies saw value in tracking people’s travel for security and business purposes. Europeans, on the other hand, were protected by strict privacy laws and prioritized privacy over business interests.

Big Tech Unexpectedly Embraces Privacy Laws

After the General Data Protection Regulation passed in Europe in 2018, privacy lawyers and advocates expected some pushback from big tech companies like Google and Facebook. Instead, these organizations seemed to embrace the changes. According to the International Association of Privacy Professionals, GDPR cost Fortune 500 companies over $7.8 billion to get their practices in line with the law. But these companies gladly paid the price, as GDPR creates barriers for smaller companies who may try to compete with tech giants.

Complying with GDPR in all jurisdictions is in tech giants’ favor. It would likely cost them more money to have different compliance practices under each locale’s laws than to adopt European or US laws on a global scale.

Do Privacy Laws Help or Hurt Big Tech Companies?

According to Cliqz, from April to July 2018, Google was one of the biggest beneficiaries to GDPR when it comes to its reach in the EU market. The firms that GDPR impacted the most were the mid-size and smaller ad networks that compete with Google. While Google has the resources to make sure all of its practices are in line with new laws and regulations, the smaller firms in the same industry may not be able to handle the changes as well. As a result, more privacy laws may actually make Google and Facebook stronger by presenting roadblocks for their smaller competitors.

Source: Cliqz

As this chart shows, Google and Facebook’s smaller competitors lost much more of their reach than either of the giants in the industry. Privacy law’s purpose is obviously not to stomp out Google and Facebook’s competition but was an unintended consequence. The lack of privacy laws plays into Google and Facebook’s business plans, but additional privacy laws hinder their competitors.

So What’s The Good News?

Fortunately, there is a movement towards more privacy regulation and protection for consumers. While law enforcement agencies are ramping up their reliance on big data, legislators are pushing for more privacy protection laws and regulations. More privacy laws are in the works that will protect consumers from privacy-intrusive companies. Consumers have suffered from a number of data breaches that have taken place in the past few years, but these also helped bring privacy into the public eye. Facebook operated almost entirely unchecked in its early years, as the only people who recognized the company’s privacy issues were privacy and security experts. Facebook coming under fire has been a great catalyst for sparking conversation about data privacy and security with other internet companies that collect our data.