Privacy and digital ethics after the pandemic

Carissa Véliz at Nature: “The coronavirus pandemic has permanently changed our relationship with technology, accelerating the drive towards digitization. While this change has brought advantages, such as increased opportunities to work from home and innovations in e-commerce, it has also been accompanied with steep drawbacks, which include an increase in inequality and undesirable power dynamics.

Power asymmetries in the digital age have been a worry since big tech became big. Technophiles have often argued that if users are unhappy about online services, they can always opt-out. But opting-out has not felt like a meaningful alternative for years for at least two reasons.

First, the cost of not using certain services can amount to a competitive disadvantage — from not seeing a job advert to not having access to useful tools being used by colleagues. When a platform becomes too dominant, asking people not to use it is like asking them to refrain from being full participants in society. Second, platforms such as Facebook and Google are unavoidable — no one who has an online life can realistically steer clear of them. Google ads and their trackers creep throughout much of the Internet1, and Facebook has shadow profiles on netizens even when they have never had an account on the platform2.

Citizens have responded to the countless data abuses in the past few years with what has been described as a ‘techlash’3. Tech companies whose business model is based on surveillance ceased to be perceived as good guys in hoodies who offered services to make our lives better. They were instead data predators jeopardizing, not only users’ privacy and security, but also democracy itself. During lockdown, communication apps became necessary for any and all social interaction beyond our homes. People have had to use online tools to work, get an education, receive medical attention, and enjoy much-needed entertainment. Gratefulness for having technology that allows us to stay in contact during such circumstances has thus watered down the general techlash. Big tech’s stocks have been consistently on the rise during the pandemic, in line with its accumulating power.

As a result of the pandemic, however, any lingering illusion of voluntariness in the use of technology has disappeared. It is not only citizens who rely on big tech to perform their jobs: businesses, universities, health services, and governments need the platforms to carry out their everyday functions. All over the world, governmental and diplomatic meetings are being carried out on platforms such as Zoom and Teams. Since governments do not have full control over the platforms they use, confidentiality is uncertain.

Enhanced power asymmetries have also worsened the vulnerability of ordinary citizens in areas that range from the interaction with government to ordering food online, and almost everything in between. The pandemic has, for example, led to an increase in the surveillance of employees as they work from home4. Students are likewise being subjected to more scrutiny: by their schools and teachers, and above all, by the companies on which they depend5. Surveillance for public health purposes has likewise increased. Privacy losses disempower citizens and often lead to further abuses of power. In the UK, for example, companies collecting data for pubs and restaurants for contact-tracing purposes have sold on that information6.

Such abuses are not isolated events. For the past two decades, we have allowed an unethical business model that depends on the systematic violation of the right to privacy to run amok. As long as we treat personal data as a commodity, there will be a high risk of it being misused — by being stolen in a hack or by being sold to the highest bidder (which often includes nefarious agents)….(More)”.