In a May 24, 2019 opinion piece for the New York Times, technology investor and entrepreneur Heidi Messer wrote why we should stop fetishizing privacy. Messer made the case that wanting privacy and anonymity was old-fashioned and that demanding privacy may stifle innovation and job creation.
Messer started the article by saying, “Media coverage of the threat to personal privacy from technology tends to follow a narrative in which privacy is a virtue, Big Tech its evil predator and government the good knight capable of protecting it.”
The issue with this statement is that it ignores the fact that Big Tech and Government are not adversaries. Yes, you have politicians that decry the power wielded by tech giants but who then use that power to attack and silence their enemies.
Big tech is made out to be evil by the media because of its ability to warp our political discourse with misinformation. But when called on it, Big Tech will through up its hands and say things like, “we aren’t publishers, so we can’t be held responsible for what people say on our platform.”
When former President Barack Obama won the 2008 election, his campaign was praised for using social media to drive voters to his message, the polls, and eventual win. Where was the conversation in mainstream news about the dangerous reach of technology and social media? Fast forward to 2016, President Trump did the same thing, using the same tools and platforms, and now Big Tech and social media are evil and need to be regulated.
Messer goes on to say, “Regulating tech companies could create problems worse than the ones we seek to solve. If we constrict their fuel — data — we may hurt not only the quality, cost, and speed of their services but also the drivers of growth for the world’s economy”.
Data is essential to market research and machine learning, but while that may be true, no stipulation requires our phones to have hidden microphones listening to us even when we think they are not. This point is especially important because we are not given the option to opt-out of having these microphones embedded in our phones.
In a June 2016 interview with Vice News, Edward Snowden took apart a smartphone and showed Shane Smith the secondary microphone. Users can’t disable this feature through normal means, and the microphone is there for one reason to listen to us when the phone is not in use.
Having a hidden microphone can be argued to help with hands-free communication and for using virtual assistants. But when ads for products you may have been discussing with someone in private begin showing on your social media feed, there should be a privacy concern, especially when the conversation did not take place over the phone.
Messer went on to say, “If safety is the actual goal of protecting privacy, consider this: Large tech companies may be our best line of defense against hackers, state surveillance, and terrorists.”
We’re told that if we want to fight terrorism and criminals, we need to give up some aspects of our privacy and that if you have nothing to hide, it shouldn’t matter. That is a terrible case of 1984 logic.
Messer continued, “As the threat of cyber warfare grows, shouldn’t we consider whether it would be prudent to break up companies that are our best allies against foreign and criminal intrusion?”
This statement is in line with the age-old “if you aren’t doing anything wrong, it shouldn’t matter if they look” mentality. The problem with this thinking is that it assumes wrongdoing or “we can’t trust these people so we need to keep an eye on them.” The call to break up Facebook, Google is because they undermined the public trust and were caught doing so.
“Finally,” Messer said, “it is time to stop glorifying anonymity. In the internet underworld known as the dark web, where users go to be anonymous, there are no Facebooks or Googles to set standards for speech…”
Google (YouTube), Facebook, and Twitter are continually de-platforming those they don’t like. Being de-platformed today is like saying that a person does not exist and is typically politically motivated because the de-platforming tends to skew in a particular direction. Tech companies have no business setting standards for speech; that is not their job or their responsibility.
We should advocate for our privacy because privacy is an essential human right and the most under attack. True, we should not fetishize privacy; we should demand it.