The Snowden leaks revealed how the government was collecting data on the public in secret, but people are now becoming aware of how much their online activity is scanned, stored, analyzed, and sold by corporations. Questions about how much of our online activity can and should be private and how that data should be handled are swirling about in the courts. The privacy of our activities online appears to be the next frontier in civil rights.
Similar questions about handling analog data have centuries of precedent. The 4th Amendment states, among other things, that our property is secure from government seizure unless there is a warrant. But the founders had no conception of the Internet and its potential for unknowingly revealing things about us.
Europe has been the spearhead for fighting for these rights. Their “right to be forgotten” rulings allow EU citizens to petition search engines to remove damaging references to them. Moreover, the recent GDPR law makes website owners extremely vulnerable to huge fines if they mishandle data collected from a member of the EU. The recent flood of messages we all received about changes to privacy policies and terms of service were because of this law.
Why the sudden interest in online privacy, despite some groups like the Free Software Foundation and the Electronic Freedom Foundation sounding the call for decades about the dangers? Part of it is that people are starting to recognize just how much information is getting revealed as they use the Internet. Smartphones store location data, usage logs, past communications, and enough personal information that 4th Amendment challenges have reached the Supreme Court and ruled in favor of plaintiffs, like the recent case of Carpenter vs. United States.
Corporations, through the use of EULAs, are using tricky legal means of pulling personal data for their own uses, along with freely available data from your Internet browser. All browsers leave fingerprints of their visits when they go from place to place. Since most of us use the same browser and devices, corporations use this fingerprint as a proxy for you when gathering data. They’re also starting to link these together.
Through this and the use of other Internet marketing technologies, corporations are able to build astonishing profiles on who we are and what we might like to buy. Indeed, this ability is what makes Google and Facebook such lucrative companies. But if corporations can do it, so can governments. Governments could also try to take these profiles from corporations if they wanted.
This ability to build profiles of us, and our activities, might also be used to manipulate our behavior, including voting behavior. China has gone all-in on this by giving its citizens a “social credit score” based on their activities online.
Some researchers have called the current era “surveillance capitalism” and declared it a threat to democracy. Technology has advanced too quickly before we realized what others were doing with our data. This has exposed a whole new realm of rights we didn’t know we had. It’s now up to the people to decide whether these rights are worth fighting for or not.