As we leave a devastating year behind, and the pandemic promises to abate with the deployment of multiple vaccines, it is time to ask ourselves what kind of data future we wish to build.
For the past two decades, we have allowed the trade in personal data to run amok. As you read this article, hundreds of corporations are stripping you of your anonymity. Our most sensitive data –data about the state of our bodies and minds–is treated as fodder for marketing and other commercial purposes. Data vultures have no scruples. Nothing is off limits regarding what can be inferred from your data. It can range from your diseases to your sexual preferences and political tendencies.
After countless data breaches that have led to a dramatic increase in identity theft and other harms, and after experiencing the Cambridge Analytica scandal, along with many more examples of data harms in the history of privacy, we have more than enough evidence to substantiate the claim that the data economy is a toxic business model.
Although the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) was a crucial step in the right direction, more than two years after it came into effect, it is now evident that it is not enough to stop personal data from being abused. The current consent model doesn’t work: it is cumbersome, it does not guarantee informed or meaningful consent, and it doesn’t protect against uses of personal data that should be banned outright because they are too dangerous for both individuals and society.
The pandemic had the unfortunate secondary effect of making us more vulnerable to losses of privacy by pushing further into the digital realm in a context in which much of the internet is funded through personal data.
To get on the right track to better protecting privacy, we need to end the data economy. Business models that depend on the systematic violation of citizens’ rights should not be tolerated. Trades in personal data should be banned. Personalised ads should go too. Anyone managing and collecting personal data owes duties of care to citizens and should be held to fiduciary duties. Defaults matter: citizens should have to opt-in to have their data collected, as opposed to having to opt-out of personal data collection.
Reforming the economy in line with privacy will not be easy, but it is necessary to protect our democracies. We won’t get there in 2021, but we can take steps in that direction.
Among the many privacy dangers we face and should be vigilant about this year, two stand out. The first is the tendency to have to give up our privacy to tech in exchange for access to basic services. As tech companies get more interested in health, our most sensitive data is more at risk than ever.[
The second danger is the temptation to think that the more personal data we collect as a society, the more we will have an economic and technological competitive advantage against other societies. In its effort to be the world leader in Artificial Intelligence (AI), the West might make the mistake of further liberalising personal data.
Collecting more personal data than what is needed makes societies more vulnerable to malicious attacks. It also jeopardises some of our most fundamental values, such as equality and freedom. Beating China in a race to the moral bottom by further exploiting personal data would not be a victory for Western countries. Violating human rights does not constitute progress. Furthermore, it is quite likely that advanced AI will not need as much data to work as current machine learning algorithms. If AI is to be at least as smart as human beings, it shouldn’t need hundreds of thousands of examples to learn something.
In order to face China and other countries intent on violating the right to privacy, democracies around the world need to unite in a renewed defence of human rights. Diplomacy will be a vital tool in responding to the most important challenges of the 21st century, which include tackling climate change and regulating tech. Countries around the world need to agree on minimum standards regarding privacy, cybersecurity, and AI. If enough countries come to an agreement, they can create pressure for China to cooperate.
Some reasons for optimism include Joe Biden taking office and being more open to international cooperation than Trump was, and the many pending inquiries and lawsuits against big tech around the world, including the antitrust suits against Google and Facebook in the United States.
Our predecessors took on the task of regulating the big industries and technologies of their time, from railways and utilities to drugs and food, cars and airplanes. It’s our turn to regulate digital technologies to ensure that the rights we are owed offline are also respected online.
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