We’re all guilty of the same thing.
In our rush to download and install apps, we carelessly breeze through all the necessary permissions without even a second glance. Facebook wants to record audio? Absolutely. Gmail needs access to our phone contacts? You bet. Instagram wants to eavesdrop on our camera roll? Makes perfect sense!
It’s a similar story when we rely on Facebook or Google for logins on sites like Soundcloud or Airbnb. After all, who doesn’t like a one-click login? It’s so much easier than a cumbersome sign-up process via email registration.
Some of us might not realize that the more data points we feed to tech firms, the smarter (and more invasive) they become. Others might shrug their shoulders and say it’s a necessary evil; after all, tech can’t serve us unless it knows more about our habits and preferences.
If you think about the sheer reach that technology has in our lives, the data points are staggering. Forget about things like browsing habits and social media likes; tech products know our daily commutes, the kind of music we listen to in the car, the food we like to eat, and perhaps even our private conversations.
According to a study by the University of Pennsylvania, Americans don’t really like the trade-off a great deal, but most survey respondents have simply resigned themselves to the inevitability of forking over personal information in exchange for technology convenience.
The study adds that people don’t feel as if they’re in a position to make a choice and that it is “futile to manage what companies can learn about them.” While they don’t want to lose control over their information, they’re powerless to stop it from happening.
Where are we going with this?
To say that the internet has been one of the most transformative inventions in modern history wouldn’t be a stretch. The collective benefits of the internet are staggering: It’s broken down barriers to information and democratized access to knowledge to a level previously unheard of.
It’s helped people escape poverty, learn new skills, engage in financial transactions, contribute to the global economy, and open up employment opportunities at a scale never seen before.
Tech developers from India can work on projects in the United States simply with a functioning internet connection. Software services are delivered via the cloud to clients all around the world. Video conferencing apps help families stay in touch. In short, the world would be a poorer place without the internet. Even the United Nations agrees: It declared the internet as a fundamental human right in 2016, frowning on attempts to censor or restrict access.
But the internet today has morphed into a surveillance and tracking mechanism, monopolized by companies with deep pockets and legislative heft. That’s not how the original founders envisioned it to be.
Tim Berners Lee—the man credited with the idea behind an information superhighway—wrote an impassioned appeal in The Guardian two years ago, urging a fundamental transformation of the web. He wrote that it had strayed too far from his original desire of an “open platform that would allow everyone, everywhere to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographic and cultural boundaries.”
First and foremost among Lee’s concerns is that people have lost control over their personal data. He states that widespread data collection by companies leads to an environment of sharp reductions in freedoms, particularly in countries with repressive regimes that are able to coerce companies into sharing the information they collect.
The world’s most valuable resource?
The Economist, in a 2017 op-ed, neatly summed up the demand for personal information by declaring that the world’s most valuable resource was no longer oil, but data. And it’s hard to argue with the cited reasons: Facebook’s 22 billion USD purchase of WhatsApp, the fact that Alphabet, Google, Apple, and Facebook are among the world’s most valuable companies, and how Tesla is worth more than General Motors despite selling a fraction of the same number of cars.
As voracious consumers of internet services and internet-connected products, are we left with any choice? And as we move to a future of connected and smart cities, will we become even more immersed in a mechanism for the government to collect information about its citizens?
I’m not trying to discount the positive elements of smart cities. If done right, they have the potential to make our roads safer, detect and prevent disease outbreaks, efficiently monitor energy use, and curb pollution. No resident would say no to that.
But the potential privacy risks are hard to ignore. Alphabet’s Sidewalk Lab project in Toronto is a case in point. Initially heralded by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as a “thriving hub for innovation,” the project has attracted its fair share of controversy, including the resignation of Ann Cavoukian, who was the project’s director of privacy.
Cavoukian resigned last year, claiming that she was misled over data-collection policies. She agreed to be part of the initiative after the assurance that all data collected in the Sidewalk Lab’s project would be wiped clean but was later informed that third parties could access identifiable information.
“I imagined us creating a Smart City of Privacy, as opposed to a Smart City of Surveillance,” she wrote in her resignation letter.
A member of the advisory panel for the project also resigned, citing unaddressed privacy concerns. But has the project stalled or reimagined itself? Not for now, at least.
This brings us back to the essential questions. How much of our personal lives are we willing to give up for greater convenience? If governments make the decision to switch to smart cities, do we have a say in the matter? And what, if at all, is the final tipping point?
Unfortunately, based on recent trends, it seems we’ll just shrug our shoulders and move on. There might be a few dissenting voices and angry op-eds. But we’ll go back home and ask Alexa to play our favorite music. Uber Eats will deliver our pizza. Privacy can wait another day.