There’s an old joke*:
Somebody stole my wife’s credit card.
Did you report it to the police?
No, he spends less than she did.
The New York Times is doing what might generously be called a symposium on internet privacy. Their tech maven, Farhad Manjoo, says it’s time to panic over internet privacy. He’s about a decade late on that, not that it matters. Sarah Jeong points to extant A.I. uses being sold to us for our own good, when they’re really ways for corporations to monitor their risk and revenue. Comedy writer Samantha Irby has a healthier view.
I don’t know how thrilled I am to be giving up my secrets, but it’s foolish to think I have any control over them, and ultimately I don’t care. I love convenience and entertainment too much to worry about how much information I cannot control is being leaked to marketers, retailers, the government and whatever Chinese intelligence agency controls the barrage of ads for $13 dresses that saturate my feed.
It’s not that anybody wants to give away their privacy, but it’s so convenient and fun. You can either worry about it, and be upset while your every secret is uploaded to the technology gods, or you can just shrug and enjoy. Either way, it’s going to happen and you’re going to use Facebook anyway.
Ross Douthat takes the Luddite position, while naturally denying that’s what he’s doing.
This is the hard truth suggested by our online experience so far: That a movement to restore privacy must be, at some level, a movement against the internet. Not a pure Luddism, but a movement for limits, for internet-free spaces, for zones of enforced pre-virtual reality (childhood and education above all), for social conventions that discourage career-destroying tweets and crotch shots by encouraging us to put away our iPhones.
But we know all this. We’ve known this for a long time, even if the efficacy is dubious. Data is often right, providing information about you that you had no idea they knew. At the same time, it includes information that’s laughably inaccurate. Government has been selling our data, as have corporations, for years.
Technologies like facial recognition work great, but only, say, 80% of the time. The rest of the time, they miss by a mile, and still that’s close enough for our expectations of mediocrity. Just wait until autonomous cars really arrive, and you realize what that 1% failure rate means in terms of real lives.
When the issue was whether government use of tech had Fourth Amendment implications, the Katz expectation of privacy test was, well, tested. And it failed miserably. The Third Party Doctrine meant we not only had no privacy from our computer overlords, but that the government could have at it at will. We should know, even if we don’t or never bother to think about it, that every iota of our lives is available in data format. But to whom?
Kara Swisher comes to the conclusion that one would expect of her.
So here’s an idea: Maybe we refuse to get over it. Maybe we start to grok what we have become, and think harder about the trades we are making for the convenience we get from our gadgets. And maybe we put in place some rules — rules that have real teeth — on big tech companies.
So cool that she used “grok” as she calls for “rules — rules that have real teeth —.” Of course, China’s rules are authoritarian, so they’re out, and EU’s rules are too heavy handed as well to serve as a model.
Europe’s message to big tech is increasingly clear: You made this mess, so you clean it up, or else.
Then there are states, like California, whose adorable legislatures think they get to rule the internet, as if a patchwork of regulations makes sense.
There are also privacy bills in play in at least 10 other states, so we are off and running to a confusing patchwork of laws. We need a more unified approach, because right now, our privacy regulation looks like a goat rodeo.
But the one thing she does know, if not how to accomplish anything she calls for, is that something must be done, and that something is regulation.
Let me be clear — I love technology, including my deeply felt relationship with that iPhone that spans decades now. But it has never been more urgent to put up some guardrails. While I do not consider the behemoth tech companies monsters, they can and do act monstrously.
Do they act “monstrously,” whatever that means? No doubt there are stories of terrible outcomes, but they act like businesses have always acted, using what they have, what we give them, to milk us of money. And as much as internet ads never seem to match anyone’s interest, mostly because they’re trailing indicators of what we’ve already bought rather than what we want to buy, we still use Amazon to undercut the corner store until the brick and mortar stores are gone and Amazon can jack up prices as high as each of us is individually capable of paying.
But is the answer the government? Does Swisher grasp that she would rather place her faith in the Federal Trade Commission than Zuck?
I would argue that we need both, and fast, before these data-hungry tech companies become even more enmeshed in our lives. Do you like the idea of A.I. comparing your facial expressions to a company’s top and bottom performers during a job interview? I don’t. Do you want cameras in every device in your home? I don’t. Do you want your television-watching linked to your search history linked to your buying data? No, thank you.
Of course we don’t like these things, to the extent “like” has anything to do with it. It’s not as if we dislike it enough to go the Douthat route and throw our clogs at servers. So let’s take our privacy and hand its management over to the government, because that’s surely the way to protect us from Bezos, by giving it to Trump?
We may hate the invasiveness of the technology (and I refuse to get a fridge that will tell some e-grocer when I’m out of milk because I have the ability to figure it out for myself). But as bad as it is that big tech is “stealing” our privacy, handing the keys to our privacy to the government will cost us far more than having to see some lame internet ads. @Jack may well be an internet thief, but at least he spends less than the FBI on our credit card. And let’s get real, it’s not as if we didn’t leave our credit card lying around for the taking anyway.
*It’s sexist. It’s old. Don’t blame me.