NOTICE: Tech companies want to write their own rules about data privacy. Don’t let them.
by Brianna Auffray and Hillary Haden
Collecting and processing personal data is what makes many of our digital interactions possible. It’s what lets you search your Gmail inbox or get personalized movie recommendations. But this practice has also brought us what Shoshana Zuboff, a Harvard business professor, has called “surveillance capitalism.” A whole industry now exists to collect and sell your data to companies, which in turn use it to learn more about you and determine how you are likely to behave in the future.
This new industry is huge and has grown in importance almost overnight. By 2017, user data had overtaken oil to become the world’s most valuable resource.
We all know the weird feeling of being inundated with ads based on the websites and social media we visit, but it’s important to understand that collecting personal information isn’t just about ads. Surveillance-based data collection is now an integral part of nearly every economic sector: healthcare, automotive, education, finance, insurance, and almost any consumer product or service described as “smart” or “personalized.”
While the sale of such data could mean more conveniences for consumers, civil rights advocates are quick to point out that the lack of regulation in these markets exposes users to extreme abuse from corporations and even corporations. governments.
In the vast majority of US states, for example, your smartwatch manufacturer could sell your sleep, exercise, and heart rate data to your health insurance company without ever telling you, much less asking for your consent. Law enforcement and government agencies can also circumvent Fourth Amendment privacy protections to track protesters and immigrants. In many countries, this data is also used to perpetuate abuses against workers and perpetrate the genocide of religious minorities.
Outside the European Union, there are few laws governing the collection, processing and sale of data in this digital economy, and most are too weak to adequately protect the public.
In the United States, the sale of data without consent has already put historically marginalized and surveilled communities at greater risk. In late 2020, Vice exposed how apps designed specifically for Muslim users sold personal data to private brokers who shared it with the US military as well as US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The apps in question have been downloaded more than 150 million times, allowing the US government to access sensitive information that would otherwise require a warrant.
Why aren’t more people aware of the extreme abuse happening right under our noses? Why is there no collective uproar, no major attempts to stop it? The answer is that Big Tech has worked hard to keep users in the dark. Companies like Google understand that consumers generally don’t want them to exploit their private messaging and online activity, so they just didn’t ask. Instead, they have created data collection systems that are largely undetectable.
As consumers and regulators are beginning to catch on, Big Tech has been scrambling to improve its public image. Companies now say they want to help write laws to “regulate” themselves locally, nationally and globally. But their proposals are often self-serving. Industry lobbyists are currently lobbying for proposed digital trade rules that would allow them to further mine and control the data of individuals, groups and businesses around the world and prevent states and local governments to adopt stricter data privacy laws.
In Washington state, tech companies are backing SB 5062, a privacy bill that protects the status quo from exploitation. If this watered-down, business-friendly bill passes, it will become much more difficult to pass privacy laws that truly protect people, here and across the country.
Led by Sen. Reuven Carlyle (D), the bill has been promoted by industry as the “gold standard” of privacy. However, a coalition of privacy experts, consumer rights organizations and civil rights advocates strongly disagree. We argue that the bill’s shortcomings, opt-out approach to consent, and weak enforcement will allow the industry to continue doing business as usual. Notably, it prevents even local governments from enacting stronger protections.
Another privacy bill, HB 1850, is an improvement on Senator Carlyle’s plan but still contains many of its fundamental problems. Companies do not need to obtain permission before collecting, using or sharing our data; it contains flaws, including one that allows warrantless sharing of data with law enforcement; and this prevents the adoption of stricter privacy laws in the future.
Washington state has an opportunity to push for something much stronger, like the People’s Privacy Act, a proposal championed by the ACLU of Washington and other civil liberties groups. Legislation would require companies to obtain permission before they collect, use, sell or share your data. If passed, it would make Washington a model of data privacy nationwide. We should not waste this opportunity.
It is clear that we are at a pivotal moment, where key decisions made regarding digital rules will have long-term effects on our daily lives. These consequences will be felt most by communities that are already marginalized, whose movements and habits are already preyed upon by corporations, and who are already disproportionately and unfairly policed by public and private entities. Businesses shouldn’t have blanket protections for technologies that put people’s privacy at risk. It’s time to call on lawmakers and demand that our privacy be protected.
The South Seattle Emerald is committed to maintaining space for a variety of viewpoints within our community, with the understanding that differing viewpoints do not negate mutual respect among community members.
The opinions, beliefs and views expressed by contributors on this website do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and views of Emerald or the official policies of Emerald.
Brianna Auffray, Esq.is Legal and Policy Officer at CAIR Washington, where she uses legal and grassroots advocacy to bring about change on behalf of discriminated individuals and communities.
Hillary Haden is the former executive director of the Washington Fair Trade Coalition and organizes trade policy that works for people and the planet.
📸 Featured Image: Photo by Photo/Shutterstock.com
Before you move on to the next story … Please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor. Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support the Emerald!