Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Fragility of Privacy

-- By ZheYang - 16 Apr 2018


We all enjoyed the benefits of social media – connecting with friends and families, reading real time news, sharing pictures and ideas, until we realized that everything we did, everything we said on the social media platform was collected and could be used against us.

Cambridge Analytica, a consulting firm, was alleged to have collected data from Facebook users and used their information to influence votes in the 2016 presidential election without the users’ knowledge nor permission.

In fact, social media is not the only place where our information gets leaked. Search engines, such Google, also tracks our presence on the internet, including things that we search for, websites that we visit, emails that we send and receive on Gmail, calendar events and our personal information.

This problem seems even more alarming with the advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) technology. For example, with facial recognition technology, one day it might be possible to detect and track our face, so that whatever we do can be under surveillance. Our location, our behavior, everything that we do in the public can be leaked. What is worse, there is no easy way to get away from it, unless if we are willing to put on a mask whenever we go out.

How do they use our information?

What recently came the public’s attention is Cambridge Analytica’s “psychographic” profiling of voters. The users signed up to use an app called “This is Your Digital Life” and thereby released their information to Cambridge Analytica. To make things worse, the users not only released their own information, but also information of their connections on Facebook. Cambridge Analytica then used consumer demographics (such as what you’re interested in, where you live, your age, etc.) to predict the user’s political opinion. Facebook detected Cambridge Analytica’s illegal use of information as early as 2015, but Cambridge Analytica kept the information until March 2018, when it became a public scandal.

As a matter of fact, Tech giants are already using AI to analyze us and sell our privacy. Even more, they also aim to change our behavior. A confidential document from Facebook revealed that the company uses AI to predict users’ response for advertisers. So they want to use not only what we did or what we are doing, but also what we will do. According to the document, Facebook can extract profiles from its user based, and produce a list of people who may choose one product over another. Facebook can then aggressively target these people with advertisement that could change their decisions. For example, Facebook could predict that you are planning to buy a new car (from your posts, pictures, messages) and then show you Chevy ads to “prevent” you from buying from Ford. The document also mentions that location, device information, Wi-Fi network details, video usage, affinities, and details of friendships, including how similar a user is to their friends can all be used to predict and influence the user’s behavior.

How to protect our privacy?

Citizen’s right to privacy is well recognized—at least on paper. Ten states put right to privacy in their state constitutions. Courts have also interpreted general provisions in other states to refer to right to privacy. However, as discussed before, AI technology poses additional risks and challenges to the protection of people’s rights of privacy.

Well, the obvious way is to go to the Privacy tab of Facebook or Google and limit what they can get form you. Another way is to use encrypted communication.

However, even now, people can simply reject the release of their information by simply reading the license agreement or just not using the app. Still, people are too lazy to take the extra step. Therefore, additional measures should be employed.

A better question to ask is, is there any way to stop technology companies and AI from tracking and stealing our data in the first place?

Technically, Facebook itself did not steal users’ information and used that to influence the election. However, its platform allowed the leak to happen and it did not take effective measures after discovering the misuse. So Facebook, Google should develop a system to better combat the misuse by third parties.

The EU has taken a lead in protecting individual’s privacy. The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), applicable to all EU member states, will take effect from May 2018. It provides several guidelines to protect people’s privacy by big data companies. For example, Article 22(1) provides that individuals have the right “not to be subject to a decision based solely on automated processing, including profiling, which produces legal effects concerning him or her or similarly significantly affects him or her.”

Some may worry that over-regulation of data usage by tech companies can impede the development of AI technology. After all, AI learns from human behaviors, and therefore collecting data is necessary. So the question is, development or privacy? I don’t think AI is necessary for human survival. However, in today’s world, AI leads to more advanced technology, and that elevates a country’s power. There might end up be a meaningless AI competition between countries, since no one wants to be left behind. So the protection of individual’s privacy might be of a secondary concern to the government.

This conclusion, for which the rest of the information contained in the essay is presented, wanders. What is the argument actually being made and what are its steps? So far as the idea that we have to use the Net in a way that is bad for us to make data for other people to control that in the end might be good for us, well, what sort of an argument is that? Obviously if people want to harm themselves for the long term larger good they can choose to do that, but to force them to do it, even by failing to provide completely adequate alternatives, is not acceptable for any government of the people by the people, for the people.

I think there are two important routes to improvement here. The first is compression of the information presented to base the argument. We have discussed the facts a good deal in the course, so you can refer to them very briefly without losing any coherence.

That leaves space for the second task, which is expanding and clarifying the argument. Better outcomes are necessary, and a great deal of data redistributed into private hands has to be sorted out for the people about whom it speaks. Now, what exactly are we to do and how?

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r2 - 11 May 2018 - 21:52:47 - EbenMoglen
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