Your worst nightmare has already happened
by Kohava Mendelsohn
What if I told you someone with extreme disregard for privacy, ethics, and safety knows where you live, how much money you have, your romantic and sexual preferences, your medical history, and your deepest, darkest, desires?
What if they also know this about everyone you care for most in the world?
What if they have billions of dollars at their disposal to act upon this information and no one to stop them?
That certainly sounds terrifying, but it wouldn’t actually happen to you… right?
According to Danielle Citron at the University of Virginia School of Law, this is our current reality. Large corporations have access to huge amounts of our data, including cell phone locations, internet search history, purchases and credit card information, and every post we’ve ever “liked”. When all these intimate details are combined, they paint a complete picture about ourselves, which these companies use, mostly by selling the data out to third parties.
Data collection leads to companies knowing way more about us than we even know ourselves. This July, a team of researchers at Northeastern University found a link between negative reviews of scented candles online and COVID-19 cases. That’s one example of how something that seems innocuous on the internet can predict major factors like your health. In this case, it took scientists months to research and validate one link. These companies have powerful AIs that are constantly searching their huge datasets for these connections. This allows them to understand extremely personal details about every single person they have data on.
According to Citron, “There are jobs we never interview for, or life insurance premiums we don’t realise are increased, because of this information.” This is no exaggeration. ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism organisation, has reported that without the knowledge of their users, sleep apnea breathing machines were sending their users’ data back to insurance companies. These companies were using that data to modify different customers’ insurance payments. Who knows what other data about us is being sold, without our knowledge, causing further damage to our lives?
Once these major corporations have your information, they are not only selling it but using it to influence all aspects of your life. In 2017, a paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that targeted content based on an individual’s personal information resulted in up to 40% more clicks and up to 50% more purchases. With all the information collected about us, advertisers know exactly what buttons to push to get us to act more predictably, and more to their benefit.
Well, some might argue that these companies are sending consumers more of what they want to see, which helps them find what they are actually looking for more quickly. The consumer isn’t hurt by the company knowing them better. If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, right?
I’m scared. Not just on my behalf, but also on behalf of all those persecuted people out there, all the minorities that can’t fight back against a system that now knows exactly how to hit them where it hurts.
Let me paint you a picture. A young woman in America has recently realised she’s pregnant. She works long hours to take care of her ageing parents and herself. She doesn’t have the money or ability to also take care of a child, and doesn’t have support from her job or family. She makes the difficult choice to get an abortion. But with the recent overturning of Roe v Wade, it isn’t safe for her to get the procedure done in her state. In fact, she could be persecuted by law. She manages to secretly make plans to take a whole day off work, travel out of state, find a safe abortion clinic, and suffer through an intensely emotional experience, all alone.
What she doesn’t know is that her monthly cycle tracker on her phone knew she was pregnant, and then knew she wasn’t again. She doesn’t know her cellphone detailed her exact location during her entire journey to the clinic. She doesn’t know that that was enough evidence for the law enforcement to get access to her private Facebook messages with her mother, where she agonised over her decision.
This picture? It’s not just a possibility, or a completely-made up hypothetical. Parts of it have already come to pass. This August, in Nebraska, the authorities got access to private messages between an 18-year-old woman and her mother about a self-managed abortion. This evidence was used against them in court.
This breach of our privacy is happening right now, and there aren’t enough regulations to stop the repercussions. In her recent book, The Fight for Privacy, Citron explains that the law “lacks a clear conception of what intimate privacy is, why its violation is wrongful, and how it inflicts serious harm.” It is all too easy to see how this vast database of private data can be used against us by insurance companies, by potential employers, and by the government. We should be scared of who has access to our data and how they are using it. This is no longer a hypothetical debate about privacy and our rights in the future. This is now.