By AMANDA HESS
Last month, the true cost of Unroll.me was revealed: The service is owned by the market-research firm Slice Intelligence, and according to a report in The Times, while Unroll.me is cleaning up users’ inboxes, it’s also rifling through their trash. When Slice found digital ride receipts from Lyft in some users’ accounts, it sold the anonymized data off to Lyft’s ride-hailing rival, Uber.
Suddenly, some of Unroll.me’s trusting users were no longer so happy. One user filed a class-action lawsuit. In a blog post, Unroll.me’s chief executive, Jojo Hedaya, wrote that it was “heartbreaking to see that some of our users were upset to learn about how we monetize our free service.” He stressed “the importance of your privacy” and pledged to “do better.” But one of Unroll.me’s founders, Perri Chase, who is no longer with the company, took a different approach in her own post on the controversy. “Do you really care?” she wrote. “How exactly is this shocking?”
This Silicon Valley “good cop, bad cop” routine is familiar, and we spend our time surfing between these two modes of thought. Chase is right: We’ve come to understand that privacy is the currency of our online lives, paying for petty conveniences with bits of personal information. But we are blissfully ignorant of what that means. We don’t know what data is being bought and sold, because, well, that’s private. The evidence that flashes in front of our own eyes looks harmless enough: We search Google for a new pair of shoes, and for a time, sneakers follow us across the web, tempting us from every sidebar. But our information can also be used for matters of great public significance, in ways we’re barely capable of imagining.
When I signed up for Unroll.me, I couldn’t predict that my emails might be strategic documents for a power-hungry company in its quest for total road domination. Such privacy costs often become clear only after they’ve already been paid. Sometimes a private citizen is caught up in a viral moment and learns that a great deal of information about him or her exists online, just waiting to be splashed across the news — like the guy in the red sweater who, after asking a question in a presidential debate, had his Reddit porn comments revealed.
But our digital dossiers extend well beyond the individual pieces of information we know are online somewhere; they now include stuff about us that can be surmised only through studying our patterns of behavior. The psychologist and data scientist Michal Kosinski has found that seemingly mundane activity — like the brands and celebrities people “like” on Facebook — can be leveraged to reliably predict, among other things, intelligence, personality traits and politics. After our most recent presidential election, the company Cambridge Analytica boasted that its techniques were “instrumental in identifying supporters, persuading undecided voters and driving turnout to the polls” on Donald Trump’s behalf. All these little actions we think of as our “private” business are actually data points that can be aggregated and wielded to manipulate our world.
Years ago, in 2009, the law professor Paul Ohm warned that the growing dominance of Big Data could create a “database of ruin” that would someday connect all people to compromising information about their lives. “In the absence of intervention,” he later wrote, “soon companies will know things about us that we do not even know about ourselves.” Or as the social scientist and Times contributor Zeynep Tufekci said in a recent talk: “People can’t think like this: I didn’t disclose it, but it can be inferred about me.” When a peeping Tom looks between the blinds, it’s clear what has been revealed. But when a data firm cracks open our inboxes, we may never find out what it has learned.
Privacy has not always been seen as an asset. The ancient Greeks, for instance, distinguished between the public realm (“koinon”) and the private realm (“idion”). In contrast to those public citizens engaged in political life, humble private citizens were known as “idiotai,” a word that later evolved into “idiots.” Something similar is true of the English word “privacy.” As Hannah Arendt wrote in “The Human Condition,” privacy was once closely associated with “a state of being deprived of something, and even of the highest and most human of man’s capacities.” In the 17th century, the word “private” arose as a more politically correct replacement for “common,” which had taken on condescending overtones.
And yet somewhere along the way, privacy was recast as a necessity for cultivating the life of the mind. In George Orwell’s “1984,” the proles are spared a life of constant surveillance, while higher-ranking members of society are exposed to Big Brother’s watchful eye. The novel’s protagonist, Winston, begins to suspect that real freedom lies in those unwatched slums: “If there is hope,” he writes in his secret diary, “it lies in the proles.” In the influential 1967 book “Privacy and Freedom,” Alan Westin described privacy as having four functions: personal autonomy, emotional release, self-evaluation and intimate communication. This modern understanding of privacy as an intimate good grew up right alongside the technology that threatened to violate it. At the end of the 18th century, the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution protected Americans from physical searches of their bodies and homes.
One hundred years later, technological advancements had legal minds thinking about a kind of mental privacy too: In an 1890 paper called “The Right to Privacy,” Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis cited “recent inventions and business methods” — including instant photography and tabloid gossip — that they claimed had “invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life.” They argued for what they called the right “to be let alone,” but also what they called “the right to one’s personality.”
Now that our privacy is worth something, every side of it is being monetized. We can either trade it for cheap services or shell out cash to protect it. It is increasingly seen not as a right but as a luxury good. When Congress recently voted to allow internet service providers to sell user data without users’ explicit consent, talk emerged of premium products that people could pay for to protect their browsing habits from sale. And if they couldn’t afford it? As one congressman told a concerned constituent, “Nobody’s got to use the internet.” Practically, though, everybody’s got to. Tech companies have laid claim to the public square: All of a sudden, we use Facebook to support candidates, organize protests and pose questions in debates. We’re essentially paying a data tax for participating in democracy.
The smartphone is an intimate device; we stare rapt into its bright light and stroke its smooth glass to coax out information and connect with others. It seems designed to help us achieve Westin’s functions of privacy, to enable emotional release and moments of passive reflection. We cradle it in bed, at dinner, on the toilet. Its pop-up privacy policies are annoying speed bumps in the otherwise instantaneous conjuring of desires. It feels like a private experience, when really it is everything but. How often have you shielded the contents of your screen from a stranger on the subway, or the partner next to you in bed, only to offer up your secrets to the data firm tracking everything you do?
The surveillance economy works on such information asymmetry: Data-mining companies know everything about us, but we know very little about what they know. And just as “privacy” has grown into an anxious buzzword, the powerful have co-opted it in order to maintain control over others and evade accountability. As we bargain away the amount of privacy that an ordinary person expects, we’ve also watched businesses and government figures grow ever more indignant about their own need to be left alone. Companies mandate nondisclosure agreements and demand out-of-court arbitration to better conceal their business practices. In 2013, Facebook revoked users’ ability to remain unsearchable on the site; meanwhile, its chief executive, Mark Zuckerberg, was buying up four houses surrounding his Palo Alto home to preserve his own privacy. Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, has defended President Trump’s secretive meetings at his personal golf clubs, saying he is “entitled to a bit of privacy,” and the administration has cut off public access to White House visitor logs, citing security risks and “privacy concerns.” When The New York Times reported that the president takes counsel from the Fox News host Sean Hannity, Hannity indignantly tweeted that his conversations were “PRIVATE.”
We’ve arrived at a place where public institutions and figures can be precious about their privacy in ways we’re continually deciding individual people can’t. Stepping into the White House is now considered more private than that weird rash you Googled. It’s a cynical inversion of the old association between private life and the lower class: These days, only the powerful can demand privacy.
Published on the NY Times' website on May 9, 2017.
A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury. Examples of civil rights are freedom of speech, press, and assembly; the right to vote; freedom from involuntary servitude; and the right to equality in public places. Discrimination occurs when the civil rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of their membership in a particular group or class. Various jurisdictions have enacted statutes to prevent discrimination based on a person's race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin, and in some instances sexual orientation.
Source: Cornell University Law School