Privacy

Personal Right to Agency and Autonomy

Individuals have a fundamental right to personal agency and autonomy over their own data and information. Your personal data is not a commodity to be bought, sold, or stolen for economic gain. We reject the premise that your information is a product to be monetized by tech companies or other organizations.

Too often, individuals are asked to trade off their right to privacy in exchange for “free” services that are ultimately funded by the collection and exploitation of their personal data. The reality is that you are the product, not the customer, in these arrangements. Even companies that market themselves as privacy-focused are not immune from this dynamic, as their privacy policies often reveal extensive data sharing practices.

Scrutinize Privacy Policies

The widespread commodification of personal data has become a defining hallmark of the modern digital landscape, transcending the boundaries of individual tech giants or data brokers. As we navigate this increasingly complex and opaque ecosystem, it is crucial that we, as individuals, take a proactive stance in scrutinizing the privacy policies of the myriad companies and websites we engage with on a daily basis.

The intricate web of data harvesting and sharing practices extends far beyond tech behemoths and data brokers. From e-commerce platforms we use to purchase goods, to the social media networks we interact with, to the streaming services we subscribe to, the collection, aggregation, and monetization of our personal information has become the norm rather than the exception.

Each time we create an online account, stream a video, or make a purchase, we are generating a trail of digital breadcrumbs that can be leveraged for commercial gain. These breadcrumbs are not limited to the obvious pieces of information, such as our names, addresses, and contact details, but can also include our browsing histories, shopping preferences, social connections, and even our physical locations.

The sheer ubiquity of this data-driven ecosystem means that we must approach our digital interactions with a critical eye, scrutinizing the motives of companies and platforms we engage with. Privacy policies, often buried in legalese and opaque language, can provide valuable insights into the ways in which our personal information is being collected, used, and shared with third parties.

By taking the time to read and understand these policies, we can begin to make informed decisions about the level of trust we are willing to place in the various services and platforms we use. This heightened awareness and individual agency can, in turn, empower us to demand greater transparency, accountability, and user control over our personal data from the companies that seek to profit from it.

The Illusion of Control Over Our Personal Data

Privacy policies are often touted as safeguards for our personal information, but in reality, they frequently serve to obfuscate the true extent to which our data is collected, exploited, and shared without our meaningful consent. Behind the veneer of transparency, many technology companies have built business models that thrive on the commodification of our digital identities, because we are their product.

Take the case of Zoom, a video conferencing platform that surged in popularity during the pandemic. Zoom’s privacy policy claims to protect the “confidentiality” of user communications, touting its end-to-end encryption as a hallmark of its commitment to privacy. However, independent security researchers have repeatedly uncovered disturbing evidence that Zoom’s encryption is not as secure as advertised, and that the company engages in intrusive data collection and sharing practices that undermine user privacy.

For example, Zoom has been found to send data to Facebook, even for users who don’t have a Facebook account, and to route some video and audio through servers in China, raising concerns about potential surveillance and data breaches. Additionally, Zoom’s software has been shown to have vulnerabilities that could allow attackers to access users’ webcams and microphones without their knowledge or consent.

These revelations highlight the stark disconnect between the privacy promises made by tech giants and the reality of their data harvesting and monetization practices. Even companies that market themselves as “privacy-focused” are not immune to this dynamic, as their privacy policies often reveal extensive data sharing arrangements and opaque data retention policies.

Hollow privacy policies reflect a broader societal shift in which personal data has become a valuable commodity to be bought, sold, and stolen, rather than a fundamental aspect of individual autonomy and self-determination. As we navigate this informational universe, it is crucial that we remain vigilant, read the fine print, and demand genuine transparency and accountability from the companies entrusted with our most sensitive information.

Big Tech and Data Brokers Profit from Our Privacy

At the heart of this complex web of data exploitation lies the insatiable appetite of tech behemoths like Google and Facebook. These companies have long positioned themselves as free, user-centric services, but the reality is that we, the users, are the true product being sold to the highest bidder.

Google, for instance, has built an advertising empire that relies on the extensive tracking and profiling of its users. Through its ubiquitous Chrome browser, Google is able to monitor our online activities, from the websites we visit to the products we search for. This data is then used to serve us highly targeted ads, as evidenced by the familiar experience of searching for a product only to be inundated with related advertisements across the web (Nicas, 2020).

But Google is far from alone in this practice. Facebook, the social media giant, has also been embroiled in numerous privacy scandals, most notably the Cambridge Analytica debacle, where the personal data of millions of users was harvested and used for political targeting (Cadwalladr & Graham-Harrison, 2018). Facebook’s business model is similarly predicated on the exploitation of user data, which it then sells to advertisers and data brokers.

Speaking of data brokers, companies like Epsilon, Acxiom, and Experian have built their entire operations around the collection, aggregation, and sale of consumer data (Federal Trade Commission, 2014). These firms acquire information from a vast network of sources, including online and offline transactions, public records, and even loyalty program data, to create detailed profiles of individuals that can be used for targeted advertising and other commercial purposes (Angwin, 2014).

The interconnectedness of this ecosystem is truly staggering. As an example, when you search for flights on Google, the data generated from that search is not only used to serve you relevant ads, but it is also likely shared with data brokers and other third parties, further enriching the already comprehensive profiles they maintain on you (Nicas, 2020). This seamless flow of information across multiple entities, often without the user’s knowledge or consent, is the hallmark of the surveillance capitalism model that has come to dominate the digital landscape.

Informational Nature of our Existence

The reality is that our very existence is informational, woven into the fabric of the universe. To deny this fundamental truth would be to deny the very nature of the world we inhabit.

Rather than viewing our informational selves as something to be hoarded or protected at all costs, we can embrace this reality and focus on ensuring that the collection and use of our data is done in a transparent, ethical, and empowering manner.

By accepting the informational nature of our existence, we can better navigate using the tools and resources at our disposal to assert our right to autonomy. Doing is not a futile attempt to reclaim a non-existent state of being, but rather about shaping the future of informational reality to align with our values and manifest our aspirations.

Let us not take our informational reality too seriously, but rather approach it with a critical eye and determination to justice and equity for all. Our very existence may be informational, but the power to define and control the meaning of our existence remains firmly in our hands.

References:

Angwin, J. (2014). The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-webs-new-gold-mine-your-secrets-1403540831

Cadwalladr, C., & Graham-Harrison, E. (2018). Revealed: 50 million Facebook profiles harvested for Cambridge Analytica in major data breach. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/17/cambridge-analytica-facebook-influence-us-election

Federal Trade Commission. (2014). Data Brokers: A Call for Transparency and Accountability. Retrieved from https://www.ftc.gov/system/files/documents/reports/data-brokers-call-transparency-accountability-report-federal-trade-commission-may-2014/140527databrokerreport.pdf

Nicas, J. (2020). How Google Edged Out Competitors and Built the World’s Dominant Ad Machine. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/16/technology/google-ads-antitrust.html

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