The Privacy Crisis | Teen Ink

The Privacy Crisis

March 25, 2019
By Robert214 GOLD, Guangzhou, Other
Robert214 GOLD, Guangzhou, Other
11 articles 0 photos 45 comments

Favorite Quote:
Make the best of what is within our power, and take the rest as it occurs. -Epictetus

In the TV series Black Mirror, the episode “Shut up and Dance” (the third episode of season three) depicts a story that a group of hackers capture people’s secrets and manipulate them to do a series of disturbing tasks by intimidating to leak the secret videos. Will this realistically depict our world in the future? Will personal data be freely traded as governments and companies demand more information of citizens/consumers’ private life? Can we still keep our privacy as the impacts of digital technology seek into nearly every aspect of our life? We don’t have answers to these questions for now, but the general trend is that we are losing our privacy.

In recent years, more personal data are leaked than ever before. In 2016, the Uber data breach render personal information (such as mobile number and driver license number) of over 57 million Uber users exposed. In 2018, Facebook admitted that the personal information of up to 87 million users might had been improperly shared with political consultancy. In 2013, about 3 billion users’ private information (including real names, e-mails, dates of birth, passwords, etc.) leaked after a hacker attack on Yahoo. These striking facts are not the whole story. According to a report by ITRC, the annual number of data breach soared from fewer than 200 in 2005 to over 1300 in 2017. The number may continue to grow even more rapidly if we do not take action from now.

But where do our data go?

The business companies often buy data from data-broker firms such as Acxiom (the largest one), which possesses data of over three billion consumers around the world. Last year, Interpublic Group (IPG) paid Acxiom $2 billion to acquire data of approximately 2.2 billion consumers. IPG believed that the data would help them better target their potential consumers. Like IPG, many other business companies also purchase our data, including our basic information, property ownership, political preferences, income details, educational background—everything that might be useful for the companies to advertise their products. Astonishingly, data is now a $300 billion-a-year industry and employs roughly 3 million people in the U.S.

More surprisingly, many of our data are actually collected by governments. There are many state-sponsored hackers, and big tech companies like Google and Microsoft often cooperate with governments’ spying programs. In India, the Aadhaar program was initiated in 2009. Through this program, the Indian government recorded iris scans and fingerprints as a way of establishing each person’s unique identity. This program did enable people to prove their attendance at work and buy train tickets more conveniently, but at the expense of the leakage of people’s privacy to the government. With citizens’ private data, governments can exert strong surveillance and easily crush down any potential opposition, which betrays the ideal of democracy.

We have been aware of the importance of keeping our personal data private for long. A 1991 CNN poll has found that 93% of the respondents believed that companies should ask permission from data subjects before sharing or selling the data. However, it is paradoxical that we often agree to the privacy policies of websites or apps without even looking at them—we do not bother reading the long and dull agreement after all. When we agree to the policies, we unconsciously entitle the companies to legally collect and sell our data, though actually we may not want to share our information.

To be fair, we cannot blame privacy leakage solely on human’s unawareness; rather, companies and governments should take on more responsibility. In terms of the privacy policies consent, we cannot register our accounts of the websites or apps without agreeing to it. Whether it should be legal for the companies to do so remains controversial, but there is no doubt that the forced consent to the privacy policies is a violation of users’ rights. In fact, governments force people to provide their private information similarly. Chinese government is now experimenting the social credit system, which aims to generate a social credit report for citizens. This report would answer questions as specific as “What undesirable websites have you visited?” For those reluctant to answer these private questions, their social credit report would be incomplete, rendering them more difficult to find jobs or apply for bank loans. Evidently, for most time we do not have a choice—we have to leak our private data in exchange for service and opportunities.

True, data sharing has several benefits such as improving the quality of public service—well, fewer salesmen would phone in to advertise shampoos to a bald man when they know his information, don’t they? Also, data industry can provide considerable extra revenue for states, which can be used to promote social welfare.

Then why should we worry? Despite the benefits, unlimited data sharing is risky because it increases the probability for people with illegal motives to gain our private data. Statistics show that the number of cyber-attacks has been increasing at the rate of 600% annually since 2017. Through these cyber-attacks, the hackers can steal our data and sell them to people with illegal motives. These people would turn your privacy into their own profits. Remember how the hackers manipulate people to rob the bank by intimidating them to leak the private videos in Black Mirror? Should data are shared continually without restraint, the ridiculous scenes in the TV series may be possible in the future.

Eric Schmidt, an American entrepreneur and software engineer, once remarked that “You need to fight for your privacy or you’ll lose it.” We are facing a critical choice now: to defend our privacy, or to lose it in the future.

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