• Nolan Hedglin

Digital privacy should be a right, not a commodity

Something that has been bothering me recently is when I hear digital privacy advocates say things like "we need to take back control of our data" or "Facebook should be paying us to use their platform." On the surface, these seem like well-meaning attempts to express disdain for the status quo of consumer privacy, but I fear that they are backed by a pernicious mindset. Once we choose to treat privacy as something to be sold (i.e. commoditize it), then we've given up our right to it in the first place. And this hardly seems like a fair exchange between individuals and billion/trillion dollar tech giants.


Privacy is already treated as a commodity for the wealthy


The decision to refuse a digital service’s data-handling agreement is easy when an individual is in a financial position to do so. For those in under-privileged communities, the desire to protect their privacy is often superseded by other pressing matters such as survival and family. For example, Google has admitted to targeting homeless populations to collect training data for their Pixel 4 facial recognition software. Employees were told to seek out individuals with darker complexions and record a picture of their face in exchange for money. Similarly, The Intercept recently reported that prisons across the US have been withholding privileges from inmates in exchange for a recording of their voice. For an inmate with a family, the decision to refuse voice printing is not simple when it means losing all phone call privileges. In situations like these, even fully informed consent is illusory.


There is also a catch-22 at play with the data we collect in the pursuit of “more fair” algorithms. The drive to minimize bias in algorithms often comes at the expense of privacy for individuals in under-privileged communities. In the Pixel 4 example, the solution Google pursued to improve facial recognition software for minorities was by collecting more training data from minority populations. To effectively do so, however, they implemented a data collection policy that targeted minority communities. There is an inherent tension between respecting the privacy of individuals in such communities and developing a technology or service that works for them as well as it does for others.


The solution is a privacy omnibus


Rather than advocating for a monetary relationship with tech giants that would further justify privacy violations disguised as commonplace practices in surveillance capitalism, we should be working towards a legislative solution that guarantees digital privacy as a right for every person. I firmly stand behind the point that every person, regardless of age, race, gender, income, etc. deserves equal consumer privacy protections. You probably wouldn't agree to let Facebook peep through a window into your home 24/7 in exchange for $5, so why would you let them do the same thing for your digital life?

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