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Privacy is power

In this week’s episode of the Tech Shock podcast, Vicki Shotbolt and Geraldine Bedell spoke to Carissa Veliz, Associate Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Institute for Ethics in AI at the University of Oxford.  They discussed Carissa’s book ‘Privacy is Power’, an impassioned argument for why privacy matters and how it’s being taken away. 

What is data collection?

Data is everywhere. Every time you open an app, buy from a website or use a search engine, data is gathered about who you are, where you are and what you’re doing. Platforms and services use this data to shape users’ experiences online.

Data collection has become such a part of life that we might never think about what we’re actually sharing until those details come into the wrong hands. 

“Our psychology is not made for thinking about these kinds of things. It doesn’t hurt to have your data collected,” said Dr Veliz, “but data can’t be recalled once the negative consequences hit us”.

These negative consequences can be devastating. Dr Veliz talked about people who were rejected for jobs because of health conditions; who were unable to secure a mortgage because of something (irrelevant) in their past; and who had had their identity stolen and used by criminals.

Toxic data

Data is a toxic substance, according to Dr Veliz, who compared it to asbestos: useful for some things but incredibly dangerous. 

Like any toxic substance, data should be used “only under conditions of safety”. Yet data is freely traded by brokers bidding for the rights to influence you as you click on a web page.

Of course, it is sometimes useful, even lifesaving, but data collection has been conflated with data trading, which is only useful to the people who are doing it. Data on people with HIV, rape victims, even parents who have recently lost a child, is sold to those seeking to influence vulnerable people.

Dr Veliz argues that targeted marketing is less effective than we are led to believe. There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors; its success is hard to monitor. She said some data brokers had been involved in creating the subprime mortgage crisis; she fears that sooner or later marketers will recognise that targeted ads aren’t effective – or even fake – and “realise that they have been paying millions of dollars for nothing” and the bubble will burst.  

What can be done?

There’s nothing wrong with your doctor having your personal data; but your data shouldn’t be bought and sold. 

Rather than having to opt out of data sharing, Veliz said we need an opt-in system, which would allow sites to remember that you’d agreed to share your data rather than making you disable cookies each time. 

Companies should have fiduciary duties, she said, like doctors, who have to act in patients’ interests, even if they’d really quite like to practise their operating skills; or financial advisers, who might prefer to make commission by buying more stock. When there is an imbalance of power, consumers need to be able to trust organisations and businesses. She compared this to getting on an aeroplane: you probably don’t know exactly how the plane works, but you shouldn’t have to in order to feel safe.  

Changing the culture 

Privacy is not a personal matter, Veliz says. Even if you aren’t directly harmed by sharing your data (though how can you know?) the fact that you’re doing it can expose your family and friends or people who share your characteristics. 

“We should think about privacy as a collective endeavour. These companies completely rely on us: if they don’t have our data, they are lost.” We have changed business practices before (abolishing child labour, for example), she pointed out: it shouldn’t be impossible to regulate tech.

Privacy for the next generation

In a world of ever-diminishing privacy, young people are increasingly at risk. “We are bringing up people who have never known what it is like not to be seen all the time,” said Carissa. 

Young people are always going to make mistakes online and these shouldn’t dictate their futures. “Teenagers need to have some space for themselves, to explore, to make mistakes.”

We can give young people the tools and confidence to protect their privacy. We can also call for much stricter regulation of data trading to give young people the freedom to explore online without fear of surveillance. Veliz said we should be teaching young people “to expect privacy, and to demand it when it’s not there”.


Listen to episode 4 of Tech Shock, season 2: "Privacy is power".

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