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Privacy is a fundamental human right that deserves protection and support in all forms.
However, in recent decades, the ethical lines that our society draws between what is privacy and what is not have been greatly blurred. As governments and private actors become increasingly intrusive, and people become resigned to trading their privacy for convenience, we have reached a defining moment in history.
If this is even possible, how can we regain control over our personal data in a society that constantly allows the walls between public and private life to break down?
Ask people how they feel about their privacy, and most will say how much they value being alone, free from intrusions and unwanted surveillance. Moreover, most will also express concern about their powerlessness to escape the growing state of surveillance created by new technologies and resentment at their lack of protection.
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Modern technologies such as social media, cell phones, and online banking have allowed centralized corporations and governments to constantly monitor our conversations, activities, purchases, and relationships. People around the world have become accustomed to giving up privacy in exchange for digital convenience.
Indeed, we are often subtly, and not very, forced to give up our privacy.
How did it happen?
One of the first questions to answer when considering the idea of privacy is: How did technology become so intrusive? Also: Why should we give up so much information just to use what have become basic online services like navigation, shopping, and ordering food?
The answer lies in how the Internet has been monetized since its inception. Every move we make online, every click, scroll and keystroke is collected by the servers we interact with. This data is used by corporations like Google and Meta to make billions of dollars annually. Big tech companies sell targeted advertising based on online movements and data profiles. While this may seem like a small price to pay for “free” access to the World Wide Web, it has serious consequences.
One of the most egregious examples of data misuse in recent times is the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica is a political consulting firm that obtained the personal data of tens of millions of Facebook users before the 2016 election. These psychological profiles of American voters were packaged and sold to campaigns, political interest groups, and anyone else willing to pay for it. These intimate repositories of data allowed interest groups to aggressively and precisely target certain demographics to advance political agendas.
However, this was not the first example of misuse of what most users would otherwise consider “private” data — and it certainly won’t be the last.
Internet Privacy and Government Surveillance
It wasn’t until 2022 that Amazon admitted it had turned over Ring videos to police 11 times without users’ permission or a court warrant. These cases are not isolated, but an integral part of how the modern Internet works.
Such government actions had perhaps even wider consequences. Since at least 2001, following the introduction of the Patriot Act, the US government has engaged in warrantless, large-scale surveillance of the home communications of ordinary American citizens. Supporters argued that giving the government more discretion in obtaining wiretapping warrants would help the government better respond to threats to national security. Opponents feared that it would be misused, and as it turned out, they were right.
Even after that type of behavior was struck down in court, documents obtained by reporters showed that foreign surveillance by US intelligence agencies still allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to use information “inadvertently” gathered from domestic communications without a warrant.
Such behavior paints a dire picture for private citizens of the world. With corporations and governments alike exploiting our private lives, how can we repair all this damage? Is there a workable solution?
If there is a solution, it must be bipartisan, combining new technological innovation and legislative action.
From a legislative perspective, policymakers have for some time taken steps to rein in big tech’s privacy breaches with varying degrees of success. In 2018, California unanimously passed the California Consumer Privacy Act, a huge step forward in restoring user privacy online. The law, which took effect in 2020, gives users the right to know what information companies like Meta and Google are collecting, why they’re collecting it and who they’re sharing it with, and the ability to stop those companies from selling their data altogether.
Although this legislation was not fully comprehensive and only applies to California citizens, it could potentially provide an initial basis for future legislative action.
The tech sector is following suit
Another set of solutions comes from the technology sector itself.
In particular, the “trustlessness” of blockchain technology has been applied to create financial privacy solutions in hopes of enabling efficient, scalable, and secure peer-to-peer transactions that do not require intermediaries. Before the invention of cryptocurrencies, users of online financial services had no choice but to trust central authorities to keep their personal and financial data safe and responsible.
In contrast, blockchain transactions can allow for anonymous transactions, with users retaining full control over both their personal data and transaction history. Transactions can be carried out instantly worldwide, 24/7, in a system with minimal trust without compromising personal or financial data. In many ways, this technology has reintroduced the privacy of peer-to-peer monetary transactions to the online world.
Despite some signs of hope that the right to privacy can be restored online, users still face an uphill battle with tech corporations, their well-funded lobbyists and governments unwilling to give up the access they currently have.
However, the key to successfully maintaining privacy ultimately lies in the decisions of individuals. How much more will we sacrifice privacy for convenience? The speed at which we develop new blockchain technologies likely holds a large part of the answer.
Brian Hernandez is the president and co-founder of Structure, a DeFi, crypto and traditional markets platform that is slated to launch in El Salvador in 2022. He previously founded Sonar Trading, which used algorithmic strategies in cryptocurrency markets. Hernandez came to trading and investing after a career in computational biology at MIT’s Broad Institute and Harvard University, during which he published numerous articles in Nature, Cell and other peer-reviewed journals.
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