Privacy, Not Just Revenge, is a Dish Best Served Cold
Back in 2005 one of my first blog posts was titled Proposed: A Choice-Based Approach to Controlling the Commercial Exploitation of Personal Data. In that and subsequent blog posts I discussed ways to manage the commercial use of personal data. These included:
- Recognition that individuals own and/or have the right to control certain types of personal identification and behavioral information.
- Availability of a mechanism for individuals to decide and legally state what, if any, of their information can be made commercially available.
- Availability of a mechanism for commercial entities to discover what personal information is available for commercial use.
- Availability of a mechanism for companies to pay individuals when commercial benefit is derived from the commercial exploitation of personal information.
Viewed in light of the recently revealed Cambridge Analytica/Facebook debacle these writings appear laughably naïve. Actually tell people what's being done with their personal data? Are you nuts?
I was enamored back then by the burgeoning availability of social media and networking. I had great hopes for the relationship building, collaboration, and communication they would foster both for individuals and organizations. I failed to anticipate that so many social media advances would be driven by advertising and commercial concerns masquerading as “engagement” and “relationship building.”
It also took me a while to realize how easy it would be to exploit social media in the promotion of half-truths, rumors, and outright lies. Social media platforms have become weaponized purveyors of propaganda while wrapped in the mantle of free speech. As I quoted in 2016’s The Downside of an Increasingly Realtime Web is Less Truth, "A Lie Can Travel Halfway Around the World While the Truth Is Putting On Its Shoes."
Accordingly, anyone actually surprised by the current Cambridge Analytica/Facebook brouhaha has not been paying attention to how communication media and their use have been evolving. People still have no easy way to check up on how their personal data are being used. Nor is there a consistent and reliable way to determine whether what is consumed online is actually true.
My idea of actually paying people for value received commercially from the sale and exploitation of their personal and transactional data is still a pipe dream. If you tell someone, “If you’re not paying for an online service you are the product being sold, not the other way around,” you’ll be responded to with either (a) indifference or (b) “So what, I use advertiser-supported products all the time. What’s the difference?”
I could buy that “advertiser supported” argument if I had a way to check up on the truth of what I’m being told, but that continues to be difficult if not impossible in most cases. That is one of the reasons I personally have deleted both my Twitter and Facebook accounts.
Let's face it, we have no way of knowing how our data are going to be used and companies like Facebook don't really want us to know how "the sausage is being made." Companies have always bought and sold personal data including, in the old days, mailing lists of people known to have certain incomes or purchasing behaviors.
Clearly Facebook cannot really control how its data are going to be used once the data get out in the wild to places like Cambridge Analytica. And, I’ll bet that many of the people targeted by that company might have been surprised at why they were being targeted by certain anti-Hillary messages.
One possible solution for this situation is to have more transparency about what data are being collected on individuals and how those data are being distributed and used. The only way this is going to happen, though, is for governments to force online networks to provide more information about what they collect and what they do with the data.
We’re already seeing some of the implications of this in connection with “right to be forgotten” laws, HIPAA in the U.S., and GDPR in Europe. It’s a real patchwork that will require significant resources on the part of online vendors conducting business online internationally that touch individuals.
My guess is that, short of totally "going off the grid," only the wealthy and well-connected will be able to afford privacy through the hiring of high-tech services that exploit all the features of the visible and dark webs. For the rest of us, well, there's always snail mail.
Copyright (c) 2018 by Dennis D. McDonald