Opinion: Information Overlord: Is lack of privacy the new norm?

The most significant change affecting the ordinary person in the last few decades has been the volume and immediacy of information. Almost every one of us voluntarily carries a smart phone now, which generates a record of everywhere we have been every few minutes, going back months or years. We voluntarily install apps that promise to help us with games, maps, traffic, weather, shopping or dating, but these “free” apps make money by collecting and selling your personal data, including location history.

If you visited an emergency room, you might see web ads for personal injury lawyers – and you wouldn’t even know why; in April 2017, the Massachusetts attorney general reached a settlement that halted an advertising campaign by a Christian anti-abortion group targeting cellular devices detected in the vicinity of Planned Parenthood clinics.

Apps listen to you when they do not appear to be running, waiting for keywords that will be used to select ads. Smart televisions may be reporting your viewing habits without your knowledge, and Vizio had to pay a $2.2 million fine for failing to disclose this to customers; apps on smart phones have been caught doing that using their microphones.

Voice-triggered personal assistants (Amazon Echo/Alexa, Google Assistant, Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana) necessarily listen to everything you say while waiting for their trigger words, but exactly what happens to all of that recorded data is murky. Amazon Echo data has been subpoenaed in a number of court cases including a double murder in New Hampshire, a murder in Arkansas and a domestic dispute in New Mexico; in the latter case, a man was reportedly beating his girlfriend and shouted “Did you call the sheriff?” which Alexa heard as “Call the sheriff!” and apparently did so, although exactly how that happened is unclear.

Anti-surveillance camera graffito at the British Library (Photo: Oxyman, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Anti-surveillance camera graffito at the British Library
(Photo: Oxyman, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Registration plate readers automatically track every car, sometimes permanently mounted near roads and sometimes mobile inside police cars, creating shockingly detailed databases that can record where an individual has been, going back months and years. Facial recognition is being used by both law enforcement and private parties, usually without any disclosure to the public placed under surveillance; attendees at a Taylor Swift concert, including minors, were reportedly tricked into submitting to facial recognition scans without their knowledge as part of her security procedures. Last week, the Center on Privacy and Technology at the Georgetown University Law School asked companies to agree to the “Safe Face Pledge” seeking to avoid harmful uses of facial recognition.

In the United States there are very few, if any, legal restrictions governing the use of these increasingly invasive technologies. Authoritarian states are eagerly embracing such technology and hurtling toward an Orwellian abyss, notably China where a “social credit system” threatens to create a nightmare of all-seeing total surveillance where anything done or said will be noted and could be used to deny jobs, travel or housing. In a demonstration about a year ago, the Chinese government was able to identify and locate a BBC reporter in Guiyang, a city of 4.3 million (slightly bigger than Los Angeles) and the capital of Guizhou province, in only seven minutes, using the national network of 170 million surveillance cameras capable of reading faces and car registration plates, among other things.

What stops us from sliding toward a dystopian Chinese-style future? Not a lot.

Sure, if you’re tech-savvy then you can set your web browser search engine to DuckDuckGo.com instead of Google, use the LineageOS flavor of Android with privacy enhancements, maybe switch to Linux on your computer instead of Windows or MacOS – but even an ancient non-smart phone will continually register its location with local cellular sites and your car will still have a registration plate. The laws have to catch up to technological reality, or privacy will just disappear entirely: What truly frightens me is the possibility that, like the Chinese, we will simply accept it as the new normal.

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