Privacy past

Tech and our own assent make privacy a quaint notion not a 21st century reality

By Laura Haight

I have been very focused on privacy lately. Or should I say, the risks to privacy, the outright invasions of privacy, the assaults on privacy barely concealed in a blanket of fear, and what the future holds for us.

All the dystopian sci-fi novels we’ve read or watched and then pronounced as “way out there”, come to mind today. Because what was once “way out there” is right here, right now.

Of course, we haven’t crossed the line yet, but we can certainly see it from here.

As individuals, we need to be much more concerned about how we are being used and what privacy rights we happily give up for a discount or a promise of better security. But businesses should also be evaluating the role they play in eroding privacy rights and the responsibility for protecting, not monetizing, the data points that are our lives.

As it stands today, the generally agreed upon metric is that the average American is caught on camera 75 times each day. In cities with lots of coverage, it’s probably more. If you include all the times that you are caught as an extra in someone else’s selfie or Insta-video, it’s probably even more.

And what is happening to all that video? How is it being used? Where is it saved? Who’s watching it? How well protected is it? Could it be accessed for purposes other than security?

In March 2016, CBS conducted a national survey related to the safety-vs-security issues raised following the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attack. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said that they would lose rights to privacy in the fight against terror.

In the three years since, technology has battered down frontier after frontier.

More than 200 million of us have code on our phones that tracks our every movement – each stop we make during the day, how long we stay in one place, and where we go next. This information is sold to companies to be used in geo-targeted marketing. If you’re reading this as a consumer, you may be divided between the convenience of getting a coupon to pop up on your phone when you are in the vicinity of a local store with a good sale, and the outrage that businesses are tracking you without your consent. But, of course, it’s not without your consent. Your consent is given when you say OK to letting an app use its location services to track you even if you aren’t using the app for “better results”, and when you accept the lengthy terms of service that are attached to nearly every app on your phone.

If you’re a business that’s not using geo-targeting, you’re probably calculating the costs of instituting a program and running sales campaigns through your head.

A US company called Panasonic Avionics has designed inflight entertainment systems currently onboard flights of American Airlines, Singapore Air, Emirates and Qantas. The new system has a built-in camera in the seat back in front of each passenger. The developer says ‘don’t worry,’ they aren’t even turned on yet. And that they were developed for potential “future uses.”

As with most technology there are the good benefits, like being able to video chat with other passengers or crew (although most seem to barely want to talk to those next to them), and  monitoring the cabins for security. But there is also the co-opting of the good by the bad. If we can monitor the cabins for security, perhaps we can scan passengers to see if they have any active warrants against them, are legal residents, or dead-beat dads with a court order against them on their way to Bermuda? It’s hard to even imagine all the ways these tech advantages could be used against us.

Just last week, the NY Times reported that China was building a database and using artificial intelligence coupled with facial recognition to track the presence of a Muslim minority population. It’s the first time, but certainly not the last, that a government has used technology to racially profile its citizens.

We are only on the cusp of our tech journey, and 5G will amp us up to warp speed. But even in these early stages, technology is unraveling a basic right – in plain sight and with our consent – making privacy more of a quaint notion than a 21st century reality.