Why Privacy in the Age of AI Is an Outdated Concept

April 17, 2018


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Chances are, you’ve already heard about #DeleteFacebook and the recent upheaval over Cambridge Analytica’s internationally explosive breach of privacy.

Though we’ll never know the full influence those psychological profiles and political ads had in Brexit or President Trump’s 2016 election, we do know that the story has left many feeling violated, concerned, and a little uneasy.

Here’s where I’m going to take a different route and suggest something that not many people are saying in response to the Cambridge Analytica chaos: it’s our fault. Not completely, no. Facebook and Cambridge Analytica hold their share of the blame — they may have disregarded user agreements, federal law, and good ethics — and they’re facing legal investigation as a result. But what about us, the billions of Facebook users that adhere to it so faithfully that it sways our vote?

It’s not just about the political ads that we share — it’s about our entire internet culture, one that too often prefers to ignore the complex social issues created by technological expansion. Internet ignorance and naïveté have left a much deeper, much more dangerous footprint than a Facebook data leak, but acknowledging it means putting down pointed fingers and accepting your personal role in our jumbled digital mess.

So let’s talk privacy. It’s just one of many digital dilemmas facing lawmakers, corporate minds, and internet users worldwide. Rather than rehash all the misdeeds of businesses, policy makers, or internet service providers, let’s examine how our own distorted internet expectations form a large part of the problem.

First, we forget that data mining is not a new practice, nor is it automatically an unethical one. Advertisers have always used the available demographic and social data to target specific audiences, whether through billboards, newspaper ads, or TV commercials. In this era of selfies and swipes, advertisers do what they have always done, only with exponentially more information and countless new ways to proliferate their ads. It continues to be our responsibility to respond mindfully to targeted ads.

Privacy issues don’t lie with the practice of data mining but with the incorrect data usage that sometimes follows. Michal Kosinski, a data scientist who helped to create psychological profiling models used on Facebook, says that people “don’t mind being targeted with more relevant information — but feel cheated when it’s done without their knowledge.” That phrase “without their knowledge” is where our internet naïveté comes into play.

Too many of us think of identity theft and fraud as something that happens to anyone else, probably to less tech-savvy individuals that shared their data unwisely or fell for some hokey phishing scam. However, as our society integrates technology into the most basic aspects of life, that assumption proves untrue. Every internet user should know that most of the time, identity theft doesn’t begin with a silly internet quiz or a suspicious email.

For example, “In 2017, companies and other entities reported 1,583 data breaches to NYAG, exposing the personal records of 9.2 million New Yorkers.” Note that those 9.2 million New Yorkers were exposed by company-wide data breaches at companies like “Equifax… Online Traffic School, Polish & Slavic Federal Credit Union, InterContinental Hotels Group, and Spiraledge, Inc.” I doubt that most people would consider traffic schools and credit unions the kind of illegitimate institutions that jeopardize your financial data, yet they managed to do exactly that.

So here we are, in an age where hackers don’t need to use suspicious links or badly translated emails to get at your information. Naomi Baron, a professor at American University, responded to a canvas from Pew Research Center about the Internet of Things (IoT) and our world’s increased connectivity. She says, “The issue is less about what choices individuals wish to make than about the choices that institutions or other individuals make for them.”

Thus, the conundrum of internet security: by consistently choosing to integrate our lives with new and exciting technology, we sacrifice some control over our personal information. Responding to the same Pew Research Center survey, David Wuertele from the software engineering team at Tesla Motors, says, “Even though many of these IoT devices have no real need to be connected to the cloud, and even though connecting them to the cloud presents a real risk to people, there is not enough of a force to ‘clean up’ the implementations. The desire by people for these magic devices is so strong that they will sign away their own personal data as well as their families’ (and sometimes their friends’) data to get the goodies.”

The universal user agreement in this digital age is that when you sign in, you sign away some of your privacy. If you want the newest, smartest technology, you have to know that it will access some of the most intimate parts of your life and that you authorized it to do so. Still, many internet users deny this unwritten rule, assuming they are digitally anonymous, autonomous, and somehow exempt from this exchange. These actions allows for the illusion of safety but obstruct the development of real protective measures in our digital world.

The danger of digital ignorance only increases as our world evolves toward even greater connectivity. Joshua Adamson-Pickett, a writer and advocate for businesses, says, “Today’s consumers demand a more convenience, and businesses have been quick to respond. I only hope that today’s tech-hungry individuals will not wake up tomorrow and mourn the loss of a simpler, safer, paper-bound world.” If the current trend continues, cloud-based technology will eventually govern much of what we do, and wide-eyed, ignorant internet users will find themselves wholly unprepared to interact in a cybersociety of that magnitude.

I’m all about new gadgets and technology, but I’m just as interested in the mindful use of that tech. Internet users need to develop a healthy sense of cynicism about any online venture, no matter how secure it may seem. As professor Alf Rehn stated, in response to questions about the evolution of online trust, “intelligent distrust will be a civic skill just like media literacy.”

Accept that in this digital world, any interaction with technology requires, to varying extents, a willing sacrifice of your personal privacy. It’s just how things are in the age of AI.


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Elaine Thompson

Elaine Thompson is a digital journalist based out of Salt Lake City. Her background is in technical writing, but her current work has her honed in on sustainability, technology, and AI systems.


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