If privacy was an animal, it would be on the World Wild Life endangered species list, and it’s extinction would definitely be man-made. That is unless we do something about it. Why should we save privacy when we can’t even see or touch it? For one, it is only the bedrock of our freedom. How would you like to live life, knowing that there is always someone watching you from the time you wake up to the time you go to sleep. Would you be able to sleep? Take a hot bath with a rubber ducky? Have sex with your significant other? And what if while you were having sex, ads about erectile dysfunction pills, baby diapers, and sex toys suddenly popped on your TV set? Okay, this might be taking it a bit too far, but if you haven’t noticed, that is similar to what happens when you do a search on Google, or look up furniture on Wayfair. Ads about things you looked up just keep following you around in websites you browse. Now, how would you like the thought of our government being able to capture everything you are doing? As in anything you post on the Internet, purchase, email to your friend, and your call to the medium down the street because you believe your cat is channeling your great-grampa when he licks his balls? Here’s the thing, that’s already happening, except the government is not specifically looking at you until you get flagged for visiting the web page of a suspected terrorist. If you think that is acceptable, you can stop reading here and go on about your business. If not, it’s time to stand up. “Stand up” is also the title of the music video I have released in collaboration with the talented Siedah Garrett. It is a wake-up call and a plea to every single soul who would listen that it’s time to reclaim for our right to privacy, and to reject a dangerous normalization of mass surveillance in our hyper-connected and oversharing world. It could very well be that the universe listened, because a lot of recent developments have put user privacy back in the forefront.
Governments, corporations and criminals alike leverage current advances in technology and analytics to collect information about us and track everything we do. Most, if not all companies such as , Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, as well as credit bureaus whose services have become essential parts of our lives, have at some point or another used their platform to collect detailed information about us, sometimes without our knowledge or consent, and keeping what they do with that information in the dark with some vague legalese they made you sign that you probably didn’t even bother to read, because let’s face it, it’s boring.
Google have been guilty of using their mobile platforms to collect user information surreptitiously in the background. Facebook has been caught performing unsavory psychological experimentation and profiling on a set of users without their knowledge. The harmful implications of these practices have been demonstrated by the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal. Cambridge Analytica is a political consulting firm whose claim to fame was the ability to influence the direction of national elections around the world to the liking of its paying customers, through thinly veiled bribery, entrapment, and psychological profiling using the raw data of up to 87 million Facebook users for message targeting.
Watching Mark Zuckerberg getting grilled by Congress regarding Facebook’s user data collection practices in light of the Cambridge Analytica incident, seems to have jolted many data processing companies to start embracing the better model of giving control of their private data to the users, and putting user privacy at the forefront of their platform development. Facebook and Google have already made great strides toward that goal.
Credit bureaus still have to jump in that bandwagon. Their business model relies on collecting personal and financial information about people without their consent or knowledge from third party sources, such as bill collectors, utility companies, and lenders among others. However, for all the influence they hold on the lives of North Americans, they are practically unregulated, and receive little if any scrutiny at all. The Equifax breach and its subsequent textbook case disastrous handling may yet yield something.
Governments have also shown a strong proclivity to sacrifice the individual privacy of their citizens in the name of national security. James Madison, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, warned against the dangers of that mindset during the Constitutional Convention by saying that “the means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home”. There is ample evidence that when individual privacy of citizens is used by governments as a zero-sum counterpart to security, the default is often to increase security at the detriment of individual privacy. The the direct consequence of that is loss of freedom.
After the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, as well as a few Anthrax scares, the US reacted by passing the USA Patriot Act, which made significant changes in the Foreign Surveillance (FISA) and Electronic Communication acts, by sacrificing individual privacy for the sake of national security.
While the original intent of the USA Patriot Act was to defend the United States against foreign acts of terrorism, its application went much further. On June 2013, an NSA contractor by the name of Edward Snowden shook the world by exposing the extensive global surveillance apparatus used by the NSA and FBI agencies to the press. It was revealed that the NSA secretly collected the phone records of millions of American Citizens through the FBI, and used a surveillance program named PRISM to tap into user data processing Internet companies such as Apple, Google, Facebook, and Microsoft Skype through broad warrants issued by the obscure FISA court. If you can name one FISA court judge on top of your head, you are probably one of a handful. Because of the lack of oversight, the breadth and expansion of the National Security Agency’s surveillance umbrella on US citizens under both president Bush and Obama blindsided Congress. Rep. Jim Sesenbrenner of Wisconsin, author of the original USA Patriot Act, complained that the NSA and FBI have overreached and remarked that "A large, intrusive government – however benevolent it claims to be – is not immune from the simple truth that centralized power threatens liberty. Americans are increasingly wary that Washington is violating the privacy rights guaranteed to us by the Fourth Amendment." Too little, too late.
Most National Security hawks see Edward Snowden as a traitor, while Civil Liberties types see him as a hero. However you may feel about him, Snowden’s whistleblowing was a blue pill moment with global repercussions. On one hand, it has emboldened authoritarian states, by exposing the US as a champion of freedom and liberty in name only, and inspired them to use Big Data and new surveillance technologies to monitor and if necessary suppress the citizenry with greater efficiency. Around January 2018, China started using cameras, geofencing and face recognition software to monitor and contain movement of Uighur minorities within their designated areas.
On the other hand, it has sparked a long overdue discussion about individual data privacy and security, a discussion has now turned into a decisive action when the European Union activated the General Data Protection Regulation on May 25th 2018. The GDPR returns control of personal data privacy in the hands of the end-user by mandating that European data processing entities disclose to their users what kind of information is collected, present the legal basis for the data collection, specify data retention period, and take precautions to anonymize the collected data among other things. More importantly, it also gives end-users the right to be forgotten on demand by having their data erased. As a result of this sweeping regulation, you may have received a bunch of emails lately, asking you to review updated policies from various services you may have subscribed to in a haze of drunken stupor. You would be well advised to read through them, because in the end, your data privacy is in your own hand.
The growing trend to return control of personal information to the end-users is a welcome stride in the right direction. It is not my focus however. I certainly want to see companies build products, platform, and infrastructures with privacy built-in by default, but to also want to reach out to the man and woman on the street, to explain the value of such technologies as it relates to their lives. Privacy, cyber-security and they relate to our freedom is a vitally important subject, but also a dull one. Singing about privacy is my way of steering attention to it, without sounding like President Obama talking about Healthcare on CSPAN. When I produced “Stand-up”, wanted to frame it as a choice to the every-man. Like Morpheus in “The Matrix” the song presents you with two options: You can either take a stand with me and like-minded people who want to take responsibility for our own privacy and freedom, or you can always leave the decision of what to do with yourself to others, and be content with perfunctory illusions of privacy and freedom. Not having to make a choice is very comfortable, but the downside is that it makes you into a sucker.
Take your pick: Red pill or blue pill?