Kids born in 2019 will be the most tracked humans in history. It’s predicted that by the time they turn eighteen, 70,000 posts about them will be in the internet ether. How and what you post about your child is a personal choice, but trusting that tech companies aren’t building dossiers on our children, starting with that first birth announcement, is a modern-day digital civil right we need to demand. As a mother myself, I want my children’s privacy to be a priority for tech makers.
I used to feel pretty lonely in that endeavor but over the last 12 months, I’ve noticed a trend: more and more people are talking about privacy. They’re calling out the companies that don’t take people’s online privacy seriously enough. They’re sharing articles detailing cover-ups and breaches. They’ve told me they want more privacy online and yet, feel trapped by the Terms of Service of the big platforms they need to use.
I think of this frustration as ‘digital wokeness’. And it’s the one good thing that came out of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Though we’ve heard the reporting numerous times, let’s recall that from one personality quiz taken by 270,000 people, 87 million Facebook accounts were accessed. Tens of millions of people (maybe you) did not knowingly give permission for their information to be shared or manipulated by political operatives with questionable ethics.
We still don’t know exactly how this data collection and subsequent microtargeting of political content influenced our democratic process. But Cambridge Analytica is just one example. Everyday we hear about another undisclosed data breach. Private information being collected, sometimes sold, and given away without our knowledge or consent. CEOs sit before Congress saying they will “do better” while stories continue to break about negligence and wrong-doing.
Just what exactly is happening?
Breaches are just a symptom of the problem. The fundamentals of the relationship between customers and these companies are broken. I recently took the helm of the podcast IRL: Online Life is Real Life and spoke to Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism who explained further how most tech companies have built their businesses on the data they collect by tracking their users’ behavior. “We all need to better grasp what the trade offs really are, because once you learn how to modify human behavior at scale, we’re talking about a kind of power now invested in these private companies,” she told me. I know. The situation is messed up and it makes you want to put your head in the sand and give up on digital privacy.
Please don’t do that. Fixing our online privacy problem requires both individual and collective action. Support organizations pressuring Congress and Silicon Valley to begin to claw back our digital civil rights and take some simple steps right now to protect your families and send a message to tech companies.
Yes, doing these things is annoying and tedious but it does matter:
Be more choosy about your technology. There’s no need to go “off the grid,” but choosing products and companies that respect you and your data – like the Firefox browser and DuckDuckGo search engine – sends an important message to big companies that largely prioritize their shareholders over their customers. These smaller, user-focused apps and services have put ethics at the heart of their businesses and deserve to be downloaded.
Become a privacy settings ninja. Most sites and apps have privacy settings you can access, but they tuck them away several tabs deep. In a user-centric world, the default settings would take your privacy preferences into account and make them easier to update. Right now, as you’ve likely experienced, finding and adjusting your privacy settings is just hard enough that most of us give up or get distracted midway through trying to figure out what to click where. Gird yourself and press on! Try a data detox and reset your privacy options, step-by-step.
Educate yourself on how your data is accessed. Easier said than done, I know. That’s why I created a five-part bootcamp. The Privacy Paradox Challenge (from my Note to Self days) is a week of mini-podcasts and personal challenges that can help you get insight into how vast the issue is and how to get your privacy game on point.
On a recent episode of IRL, I spoke to Ellen Silver, VP of Operations at Facebook regarding the ever louder conversation about Facebook’s ethics. She assured me that Facebook is working to be more transparent. A few weeks later her boss, Mark Zuckerberg, made his 2019 New Year’s Resolution to “host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society.” But we’ve heard promises from Facebook and other tech companies before. Let’s make sure they talk about privacy. Let’s continue asking all of the tech companies harder questions. And let’s start using our spending power to support companies that take our data as seriously as we do. Those are the next steps in this growing conversation about privacy. And that is indeed progress.