Privacy in the Age of Data Hoarding

Facial Recognition, Big Data and New Social Norms

Facial recognition software is coming soon to a schoolyard near you. The Lockport City District of Niagara County, New York, will soon become the first in America to install biometric cameras throughout campus buildings, thanks to a state “Smart School” grant aimed at countering the threat of gun violence. The high-tech change has been criticized not only as “inefficient and expensive,” but also as an unprecedented invasion of students’ privacy.

“Normalizing mechanisms of surveillance and control catalyzes the criminalization of the school environment,” notes Toni Smith-Thompson, an organizer of the New York Civil Liberties Union, “and could make school hallways feel more like jails.”

Schools aren’t the only place where surveillance methods are becoming more sophisticated, and traditional privacy expectations more endangered. Facial recognition cameras are already being used by law enforcement at stoplights, sports stadiums and airports to target administration critics and nab criminal suspects, despite their propensity for false matches disproportionately affecting people of color.

While public agencies justify ramped up surveillance in the name of security, private tech companies do it for ad revenue, refining their abilities to psychologically profile — and maximize profits made off — every individual consumer. Retailers like Target and Walmart use in-store Bluetooth tracking to record our buying habits and send advertisements to our phones accordingly. Now it’s not just your favorite websites or Google Home device that record and store your every preference and vocal command indefinitely; it’s your fridge, your thermostat, your children’s dolls.

These companies collect and hoard increasingly unfathomable stores of personal information with little to no accountability for how it’s handled, leaving users vulnerable to third-party trackers, targeted misinformation campaigns and data breaches. Hacking risks are especially high in the cannabis space given its spotty legal status and retailers’ tracking of sensitive medical and financial info, with one breach exposing 4,500 orders from Canada’s Ontario Cannabis Store last November.

If anything, though, the developing cannabis industry is held to a higher standard of consumer protection than most. A far larger breach went unpunished, for example, in the case of political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica (CA), which harvested data from millions of Facebook profiles without consent to aid in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential bid. While former CA employees moved to Trump’s 2020 campaign under the new banner of Data Propria, Facebook similarly got off scot-free for illicitly sharing users’ info and private messages with more than 150 other partnered companies, among them the Russian search engine Yandex and Chinese telecom giant Huawei. Despite repeated promises to “do better,” Facebook’s actions indicate their opposing commitment to ever-expanding surveillance, taking out preliminary patents to analyze your facial expressions, determine what shows you’re watching, guess your socioeconomic status and predict when your friends will die.

When private companies abuse users’ ignorance about data protections without suffering consequences, it sends a message that it’s up to users to protect their own privacy in a realm persuasively designed to strip them of it, abdicating the public sector’s imperative to protect consumer rights against predatory companies when mere market competition isn’t enough.

In the narrative of these data-gathering conglomerates, so-called “surveillance capitalists,” this is all a good thing. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg proclaimed privacy was no longer a “social norm” in 2010, a sentiment echoed by international security professor Richard J. Aldrich’s 2015 TEDx Talk titled, “Privacy is Dead: The Future is Fabulous.” The year before, Google’s then-CEO Eric Schmidt voiced another common argument against privacy protections, saying, “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Yet a majority of Americans feel differently, according to PEW Research, and consider it “very important” that they maintain their privacy. So why hasn’t it stopped us from entrusting the same few untrustworthy companies with virtually all of our most personal information and correspondence? No doubt ignorance and convenience play a part, incentivized as we are given rewards discounts and free access – one part of the online realm that was always too good to be true – not to mention the impenetrable legalese of their terms and conditions. But as the internet has become increasingly essential for everyday life, there’s been little choice for many but to accept the likelihood that everything we do online or in public is being watched, with the immediate gains of the global community and professional opportunity outweighing obscure and widely-distributed consequences down the road.

Now, in civil society as in elementary schools, we’re seeing on a massive scale what loss of privacy looks like. In one recent study, teens’ fear of being tracked discouraged them from seeking out sexual health information online, a stark contrast to the assumed anonymity of the web’s early days. The algorithms that determine what we see online have deepened social divisions by creating “filter bubbles” that insulate us from opposing viewpoints, while giving governments and companies the tools to discriminate on any criteria they choose, like excluding older populations from job ads. In China, the ruling Communist Party (CCP) utilizes AI-powered DNA databases and mandatory surveillance apps to preempt dissent and intern political opponents or religious minorities.

Instead of any liberalizing effect, data collection gave the CCP a previously unimaginable means of social control to serve their goal of “stability maintenance.” This is because, far from existing in a vacuum, privacy is foundational to most basic human rights, like freedom of speech, association and thought. Without it, we’re constrained from exploring ideas outside the mainstream and voicing private criticisms by the fear of judgment or public censure from all directions.  Just like carrying a smartphone or being in a crowded room, the knowledge of being watched takes up mental energy, leaving less of what psychologists call our “cognitive load” for creative or independent thought. A world in which every private company, public organization and person can know anything about anyone else wouldn’t be a utopia – it would be exhausting.

To avoid this, Americans need to stop letting innovation lead them by the nose to a new age of “privacy nihilism,” letting the security and advertising industries that stand to profit most from new tracking technologies define the conversation and accelerate their adoption. With the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and California’s Consumer Privacy Act last year, the Western world is moving towards a more advanced understanding of data as a new kind of currency – like paper currency, defined by our own valuation of it – and institutional transparency as essential to personal privacy. We can’t control what others know about us if we don’t know what info companies collect, or how they can use it.

While there’s no one paranoid ruling organization driving surveillance expansion in the United States as in China, it could be that the presence of such technologies makes paranoids of us all. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, and in the wake of Cambridge Analytica, it’s hard to deny the immense power amassed in personal data – the power to change how people see the world, and thus, to change the world. Even if Facebook and Google launched with good intentions and behaved as any other profit-driven company would be expected to, their vast archives of data have become like enormous power vacuums, bound to be abused if left unchecked. We always assumed Big Brother would create the surveillance state, but what if the surveillance state could create Big Brother?

Jeffrey Rindskopf

Jeffrey Rindskopf is a freelance writer and editor based in Seattle, born and raised in southern California. He attended film school at Chapman University before beginning his career as a freelancer in 2014, writing fiction and articles covering travel, food, and culture. When he isn't writing, Jeffrey likes to travel or simply melt into the couch while consuming some of his favorite media.