Does it feel like things are finally starting to turn a corner when it comes to online data privacy? It seems like a lot more people are starting to care about privacy, at least as an issue, if not as a personal ethic. Sure, some people are starting to use Facebook’s privacy settings, but because those things change all the damn time, it’s hard to tell whether that will make much of a lasting difference.
I’m also not convinced that people are seeing the writing on the wall when it comes to online privacy or the retention of their own civil liberties. People have never seemed to care that data is used to sell them stuff they “already want,” or that current and prospective health insurers are getting all sorts of data on what you Google. Nor do they care that their reading list–something the Founders would have considered sacrosanct–has been accessible by government since the PATRIOT ACT.
Data companies can capture information about your “interests” in certain health conditions based on what you buy — or what you search for online. Datalogix has lists of people classified as “allergy sufferers” and “dieters.” Acxiom sells data on whether an individual has an “online search propensity” for a certain “ailment or prescription.”
People don’t seem to care about whether their information is up for grabs because they don’t understand how easily comprehended and quantified they are. Everyone thinks he or she is immune from easy prediction, but with the rise of big data, prediction is getting scarily smart. For example, analyzing Facebook “likes” is enough to predict a lot about your personality that you probably wouldn’t tell a stranger, let alone some amoral marketing firm trying to figure out ways to extract money from you.
The researchers used a pool of 58,000 volunteers in the United States. Based on “Likes” alone, they were able to predict whether a user was African-American or white 95% of the time, male or female 93% of the time.
They were able to gauge sexual orientation 88% of the time for men and 75% of the time for women. They were also able to predict political leaning (Republican versus Democrat) 85% of the time. On a more personal level, the researchers were able to predict whether your parents divorced when you were a kid 60% of the time.
The study also could make reasonably accurate guesses about whether you were a drug user, drinker, or smoker, as well as a host of other attributes, including emotional stability, satisfaction with life, and extraversion.
And in many cases, it’s not even a question of prediction; it’s simply data analysis because people live enough of their lives on the web for there to be sufficient data to determine all of those characteristics.
On a small side note, this attitude has had serious implications. Except for Rand Paul and a few others who have been written off as right-wing loonies (and not without some justification), no one really seems to be talking about the near-omnipotence of government vis-a-viz individual civil liberties and freedom from state monitoring, as long as lip service is paid to the correct constitutional priority. Didn’t liberals care about civil liberties at some point? Wouldn’t they be crowing about the horrendous abuse of executive power if Bush was still in office, authorizing drone strikes or signing off on memos that allow for unilateral targeting and assassination of anyone it designates an enemy combatant? People have been placated in this permanent surveillance state by having Obama institutionalize the violations that began under Bush. In that way, greater damage has been done to civil liberties in the failure to restore them than the initial infringement could ever do.
Government’s hunger for data also fuels its passive allowance of private companies to do its collection and data mining for it. Sure, government is constrained by the Fourth Amendment, but Facebook, Google, Apple, and the like aren’t. And they do respond to subpoenas.
Other than certain kinds of protected data — including medical records and data used for credit reports — consumers have no legal right to control or even monitor how information about them is bought and sold. As the FTC notes, “There are no current laws requiring data brokers to maintain the privacy of consumer data unless they use that data for credit, employment, insurance, housing, or other similar purposes.”
In terms of online privacy, though, I think it’s that people are starting to get possessive about their data, and it’s because it’s becoming increasingly easy to care about privacy as it is to not care about it. Of course, the additional effort means that most people will stay in-by-default than opted-out. But there are ways to start to default to an opt-out. For example, there are user-side solutions like “Do Not Track“:
The customer demand for stronger data controls led to the introduction of the “do not track” feature. “Do not track” is a setting that can be now found on all the major browsers: Firefox, Internet Explorer, Chrome and Safari. When turned on, it asks sites not to track that person’s online activities. A Microsoft survey found that 75% of people were concerned about online tracking and thought the setting should be turned on by default.
And then, there are the more forcible opt-out solutions, that can opt-out your data from being further used and abused. Sure, it’s more effort, but those who care enough can take the steps to opt-out. That scheme stands in stark contrast to the state of civil liberties, where an opt-out gives rise to automatic suspicion.