The Problem With “Privacy”

The governments and corporations that spy on us would like nothing better than for us to remain lone individuals, tasked with protecting our own data and privacy. Only collective action can secure civil liberties.

The science of Big Data is increasingly arcane, and individuals cannot be plausibly empowered to discern how their data is used. (@ev / Unsplash)

Privacy looks to be another major casualty of COVID-19. The pandemic has accelerated our dependence on digital platforms and services that, by their nature, make our data vulnerable. School is online; shoppers increasingly rely on digital purveyors; and half the workforce toils remotely from home. Many of the digital innovations and changes we witness are here to stay, bound to alter social and economic life in profound ways — and make privacy cheap.

There’s more. As vaccine development drags on and countries grow anxious to open their economies more fully, the Chinese model beckons. Wuhan, the early epicenter of the disease, is open for business and back to normal. China corralled the disease by deploying invasive surveillance — among other things, training cameras on people’s doors to enforce quarantine — and modeled other forms of digitally tracking people across the country’s vast expanse, to enable an impressive contact tracing system.

US tech firms eager to emulate China’s success are developing smartphone apps that indicate if you have been near someone infected, and thus need to quarantine. Much of the COVID-inspired surveillance is also here to stay — and, dreading another global shutdown, I wager many people will be happy for it.

Civil libertarians are, quite justifiably, concerned about these developments. We must guard our privacy more jealously, they say. Caught up in the frenzy and speed of the digital economy, awestruck by its many wonders and conveniences — accepting surveillance if it means warding off another pandemic — we ignore how privacy is essential to democracy and liberty.

We require privacy, they insist, to feel safe and free to consider ideas that are controversial — or offensive — to some. Expansions of liberty, which are later taken for granted, start with controversial ideas. If privacy is inviolate, people will feel uncoerced and empowered as free-thinking, self-determining citizens.

But privacy advocates largely endorse an agenda — giving individual consumers more control over their data — that does a disservice to the liberties they aim to protect. The corporate behemoths invested in spying on us — and governments too, for that matter — would love nothing more than to see us fragmented and isolated, as lone individuals tasked with protecting our own privacy.

Individualism and Privacy

In 2018, privacy advocates applauded as the European Union’s enacted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), touting it as a model for other liberal democracies intent on defending individual rights in the digital age. The GDPR requires companies to provide documentation explaining why they are collecting and processing people’s data, how long they will hold it, and how they will protect it during that period.

Consumers are now prompted to consider such documentation before opting in to a company’s website. (In the United States, we may only opt out, after already visiting a website.) The GDPR aims to make data collection more than an afterthought as we navigate the digital universe. That way, we might be more discerning in sharing our data.

The problem is, the science of Big Data — the industry engaged in data collection and analysis — is increasingly arcane. Individuals cannot be plausibly empowered to comprehend and discern how their data is used.

Consider a few illuminating examples. In 2012, news broke that the retailer Target was determining when pregnant customers were in their second trimester in order to market to them more effectively. How did Target’s data analysts figure this out? They identified a constellation of products that, when purchased together or in close succession, revealed a person’s impending maternity.

These weren’t obvious products like diapers or cribs, which people would buy closer to the due date. Target wanted to know of pregnancies early on; telltale products included lotions, cotton balls, and multi vitamins. Target’s analysts got so good at figuring this all out, they could predict a woman’s due date to within a matter of days.

In one notorious case, a man stormed into a store complaining about the baby-related coupons his teenage daughter was receiving, demanding to know whether the company was “trying to encourage her to get pregnant.” The store manager apologized — but the man called back a few days later to report his daughter was indeed pregnant. Target simply knew before he did.

Consider also that data analysts determine creditworthiness from mining our smartphone behavior. They pay attention to how often we change our phone battery, how many messages we receive, whether we are solicitous in returning phone calls, and how many contacts our phones contain. Increasingly, Big Data does not even need our data — metadata, the data of our data, will do. Analysts believe they can learn plenty from the mere form of our communications and digital behavior.

Technology scholar Shoshana Zuboff tells us an insurance company will soon determine your premium not on the basis of “what you write about but how you write it. It is not what is in your sentences, but in their length and complexity, not what you list, but that you list, not the picture but the choice of filter and degree of saturation, not what you disclose but how you share or fail to.”

And you don’t even have to be online for spies to learn all about you. Facebook compiles shadow profiles of people whose existence is merely invoked on the social media platform.

The Need for Collective Action

We should be concerned about data collection and analysis because it potentially gives spies immense power over us. Armed with sensitive personal information, knowing what we want before we even know we want it, they can influence, manipulate, or coerce us, and undermine if not rob us of our freedom. But privacy regulations are a poor instrument for repelling this threat.

The EU’s regulations offer an illusion of parity between the individual and corporate spies — they falsely suggest I can understand what they are up to. They offer the mirage of rational autonomous consent, suggesting that I know what is asked of me, for what purpose, to what end. In truth, we have no idea. The science of Big Data far outstrips our imagination.

Such regulations are reminiscent of what the political theorist Wendy Brown calls “responsibilization” — the effort to put the onus on individuals to defend our liberty and welfare, even when we have little means to do so. Meanwhile, those with real power remain unimpeded.

The current threat to privacy demands a collective response. It requires the power of organizations that can stand up to corporations and government alike. Calls to concern ourselves with individual privacy protections distract us from the crucial task of building communal solidarity over and against powerful spies.

The rise of labor unions is a key example. In the 1930s, General Motors ruled Flint, Michigan with an iron fist, crushing union activity. One worker complained that GM “so completely run[s] this town and have it so well propagandized to their own good that one doesn’t even talk here. You have no liberties at all. You couldn’t even belong to a union and breathe it to a soul. That soul would probably be a spy.”

In response, workers orchestrated one of the most remarkable strikes in US history, launching sit-ins at their factories and occupying them for over a month. In the face of ominous threats, the workers persisted through their coordinated action — and prevailed.

Privacy for individuals is a powerful idea. But in the end, what does it afford us, if we are able to speak and think in peace but unable to translate this into public action? Our communal bonds, the associations we enact and mobilize are more potent resources.

Take another example: China. While the Chinese state is famous for suppressing disruptive speech and ideas online, researchers have been surprised to discover the government engages in less censorship than previously thought. Censors are surprisingly permissive of “criticisms of the state of the Communist party” — from average, unaffiliated citizens, that is.

This makes sense, media scholar Zeynep Tufekci explains: by allowing and then keeping tabs on critical comments, the government can gauge public opinion. Absent free elections, this is an effective way for autocratic regimes to stay ahead of brewing problems. Where it draws the line is online posts that have “any potential to encourage collective action.”

Why? As one commentator put it, “Once people learn to mobilize, even if they do so to support [the regime], who knows what else they will try next?”