The Death of Privacy in the Digital Age - America's Future

June 9, 2021

Policy

The Death of Privacy in the Digital Age

By: Scott McClallen

In 2021, algorithms are the name of the game. They quite literally run our lives, from loans being approved, suggesting dating profiles, and even job hunting. 

With a flood of data, companies are analyzing and selling data like never before. That includes, but is not limited to;

1. College recruiting 

2. Credit limits

3. Netflix suggestions

4. Search engines

5. Youtube video suggestions 

The digital age has not come without casualties. Our lives are considerably less private while  Tech companies sell that private information to companies that often have poor intentions. 

For example, Mathematician Cathy O’Neil explains how for-profit colleges use data to target vulnerable communities. A 2012 Senate committee report showed, now-shuttered, Vatterott College in Missouri focused outreach efforts to “Welfare Mom w/ Kids. Pregnant Ladies. Recent Divorce. Low Self-Esteem. Low Income Jobs. Experienced a Recent Death. Physically/Mentally Abused. Recent Incarceration. Drug Rehabilitation. Dead-End Jobs. No Future.” 

Twenty-four hours a day in Detroit, thousands of cameras record activity at gas stations, restaurants, grocery and liquor stores, apartment buildings, churches, and schools for police to watch in real time. We’ve integrated technology into our daily lives to start cars remotely, turn down the thermostat from bed, and track heart rates via wearable tech. But, with automation, our peace of mind has dwindled.  

Yet another instance of our data being taken advantage of, there’s a federal class-action lawsuit that claims a Dallas employee of security giant ADT accessed hundreds of remote home security cameras without the authority to do so. 

The lawsuit claims the employee added himself as an admin, granting unfettered live-stream access to see customers “in various states of undress” and during “moments of physical intimacy.” This employee’s actions went unnoticed for nearly seven years before finally being caught.  

Business for Big Tech companies boomed during the COVID-19 pandemic, ballooning these already massive behemoths to unfathomable sizes. While the COVID-19 pandemic bankrupted and caused many small businesses to go under, it was a steroid for Amazon and the gang. New York University Professor Scott Galloway writes in “Post Corona: From Crisis to Opportunity” that Apple worked for 42 years to break a $1 trillion valuation but spent only 20 weeks, from March to August 2020, to leap from $1 to $2 trillion.

In 2020, five companies — Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft comprised 21% of the value of all publicly traded U.S. companies, Galloway writes. 

We haven’t seen this sort of consolidation of corporate power since the oil and railroad barons of the late 1800s. In many aspects these barons controlled the flow of goods and information and it’s challenging to compare it to company power today.

Facebook owns the four most downloaded apps in 2019: Facebook, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Instagram— but even more concerning, they own all the data associated with them. 

And how they use that data is largely a secret. 

In a Pew study, 74% of Facebook users say they didn’t know Facebook collected their traits and interests until directed to a Facebook policy page. Pew also found that 62% of respondents said social networks control too much news people see. 

As public discourse pivoted online in 2020, many tech companies decided what speech they did and did not like— wiping some people off the digital earth, even when they might be right. On May 26, Facebook said it will stop removing posts saying COVID-19 might have originated in a lab after months of removing speech. 

I’ve spoken to dozens of people permanently banned from platforms for posting memes and jokes. 

Facebook threatened to kick the Babylon Bee, a satire site, off the platform and demonetize them after Snopes, a 25-year veteran company, felt the need to debunk an article titled “CNN Purchases Industrial-Sized Washing Machine to Spin News Before Publication.”

Babylon Bee CEO Seth Dillon told me, “It used to be that jokes were either funny or not. Now, they’re either true or false.”

Despite all the benefits that technology offers, serious concerns linger when contemplating the future of technology in our lives. The propulsion of alleged censorship will push us to ask tough questions: should Big Tech be the arbiter of truth? Should we regulate data and algorithms? Should we ditch Big Tech for a service that doesn’t sell our secrets? 

America’s Future is excited to highlight members of our community. Scott McClallen’s first book, Twisted Tech, will be published in December 2021, until then, follow him on Twitter @ScottMcclallen