Big tech wants us to think we control our own data, but we don’t. Our relationship with technology begins with deception and lies, writes cybersecurity expert and human rights activist Manal al-Sharif.
Every day, as we live busy lives, we are lulled into a false sense of security about our privacy. This happens almost every time we “agree to the terms”. When they tell us they don’t sell our data, read the fine print. They do. When we are told that “if you have nothing to fear, then you have nothing to hide,” they are lying. It’s time to expose the lies and reclaim our digital agency.
Privacy is a basic human right and a prerequisite for exercising other rights. In 1948, members of the United Nations declared privacy an “inalienable and universal human right.” In 1966, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights emphasized that privacy plays a central role in democracy, so all members of society, not just those with power or wealth, should be aware of their rights.
What is online privacy?
Almost every aspect of our lives is digitized, and so is our privacy. That’s why you may hear techies refer to privacy as digital privacy, internet privacy, or internet privacy in general. Online privacy refers to how much of our personal, financial, and browsing data remains private when we’re online and sometimes offline.
Our data collection and every “breath” we take is made easier by our connected world. This happens when we go online or when we carry our chatty mobile devices and smart gadgets. This happens when we connect to or pass by WiFi access points and telecom towers. When we go through a CCTV system with facial recognition. When we use our rewards card to collect points. When we walk into a store equipped with smart technology. All these activities are logged and collected. The information that we knowingly share is no longer being collected. We share so much just by being connected or passing by the many excessive technological “hotspots”.
Why is Big Tech playing down the importance of online privacy?
According to the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL), advertising companies share users’ personal data 178 trillion times a year in the US and Europe alone. Data is transferred to third-party companies around the world, including companies in Russia and China. This data is typically intimate profiling based on online and offline activities and behavior. And we have no say in when that data is sold. We don’t even get a cut of the profits.
If our personal data isn’t important enough to protect, why the obsession with collecting every bit and byte of our data, including hiding microphones in the gadget we buy to protect us from intruders in the physical world? It’s hard to accept that our data isn’t so valuable that we shouldn’t worry about it, give it away in exchange for convenience, and trust technologists because they’re just using it to provide us with personalized services.
Privacy violations have an even greater impact on minorities and vulnerable groups in society. Privacy is a price only the affluent can afford, leaving traditionally marginalized groups open to surveillance, data collection, and abuse.
And if we feel hopeless about our online privacy right now, just imagine the collective damage these practices will do to future generations.
What can we do?
Here are some basic steps we can take to minimize privacy breaches while online:
- Spread awareness about exercising our privacy rights and encourage regulators to adopt strict privacy laws.
- Use private design technology and be sure to boycott privacy violators. This can start with simple things like a private Internet browser or private search engines.
- Use opt-out options when in doubt, including the Do Not Call registry.
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But real change will only happen when regulators step up and pass strong privacy laws, along the lines of the EU GDPR and California’s CCPA.
We need to approach online privacy from a position of empowerment and agency, not fear or hopelessness. Informed people make informed decisions. Awareness is a prerequisite to being able to exercise our digital rights.
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Manal al-Sharif is a writer, speaker, human rights defender and regular contributor to international media. She has written for Time, the NY Times, and the Washington Post. Her Amazon bestselling memoir, The Courage to Drive: The Awakening of a Saudi Woman, is an intimate account of her life growing up in one of the most masculinist societies in the world.
Manal is a cybersecurity expert and hosts the tech4evil.com podcast, which discusses the intersection of technology and human rights.