Privacy’s not dead. It’s just not evenly distributed

Alex Pasternack in Fast Company: “In the face of all the data abuse, many of us have, quite reasonably, thrown up our hands. But privacy didn’t die. It’s just been beaten up, sold, obscured, diffused unevenly across society. What privacy is and why it matters increasingly depends upon who you are, your age, your income, gender, ethnicity, where you’re from, and where you live. To borrow William Gibson’s famous quote about the future and its unevenness and inequalities, privacy is alive—it’s just not evenly distributed. And while we don’t all care about it the same way—we’re even divided on what exactly privacy is—its harms are still real. Even when our own privacy isn’t violated, privacy violations can still hurt us.

Privacy is personal, from the creepy feeling that our phones are literally listening to the endless parade of data breaches that test our ability to care anymore. It’s the unsettling feeling of giving “consent” without knowing what that means, “agreeing” to contracts we didn’t read with companies we don’t really trust. (Forget about understanding all the details; researchers have shown that most privacy policies surpass the reading level of the average person.)

It’s the data about us that’s harvested, bought, sold, and traded by an obscure army of data brokers without our knowledge, feeding marketers, landlords, employers, immigration officialsinsurance companies, debt collectors, as well as stalkers and who knows who else. It’s the body camera or the sports arena or the social network capturing your face for who knows what kind of analysis. Don’t think of personal data as just “data.” As it gets more detailed and more correlated, increasingly, our data is us.

And “privacy” isn’t just privacy. It’s also tied up with security, freedom, social justice, free speech, and free thought. Privacy harms aren’t only personal, but societal. It’s not just the multibillion-dollar industry that aims to nab you and nudge you, but the multibillion-dollar spyware industry that helps governments nab dissidents and send them to prison or worse. It’s the supposedly fair and transparent algorithms that aren’t, turning our personal data into risk scores that can help perpetuate race, class, and gender divides, often without our knowing it.

Privacy is about dark ads bought with dark money and the micro-targeting of voters by overseas propagandists or by political campaigns at home. That kind of influence isn’t just the promise of a shadowy Cambridge Analytica or state-run misinformation campaigns, but also the premise of modern-day digital ad campaigns. (Note that Facebook’s research division later hired one of the researchers behind the Cambridge app.) And as the micro-targeting gets more micro, the tech giants that deal in ads are only getting more macro….(More)”

(This story is part of The Privacy Divide, a series that explores the fault lines and disparities–economic, cultural, philosophical–that have developed around digital privacy and its impact on society.)