The internet is where we could live, love, learn and communicate freely. To be ourselves, we need to be able to trust the systems that protect us.
A tectonic shift in public awareness about privacy and security in the digital world has occurred in the past year. Some are even calling it “the great privacy awakening.”
In 2018, news broke that data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica had harvested data of millions of Facebook users, without their knowledge, and used it for political purposes — including attempts to influence elections in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Public outrage was swift and widespread. Campaigns to make Facebook private by default and to ask users to delete the platform outright took off. Nearly three-quarters of Americans and Canadians reported tightening their Facebook security or distancing themselves from the site altogether. Facebook was grilled in the U.S. Congress and the Canadian House of Commons, fined by the U.K. and sued by the District of Columbia. The company’s stock plummeted.
Our datarich digital age have some benefits. Streaming music services recommend songs, based on what we’ve listened to. Voice recognition technology lowers barriers to access to the internet. City planners have access to more data. Yet, as devices on our streets and in our homes gather more data, a fundamental question remains: Are we too exposed?
Does our awareness extend to making informed choices about commercial DNA tests? Or the privacy settings for apps and online services. We should know the risks of ransomware attacks, why strong passwords are vital and how to judge the security of devices we buy.
But the responsibility for a healthy internet cannot rest on the shoulders of individuals alone. Just in 2018, millions of people were affected by breaches at Google, Facebook, Quora, Marriott and many others. Over 1 billion Indian citizens were put at risk by a vulnerability in Aadhaar, the government’s biometric ID system. Telecommunications providers, including Telus, AT&T and Sprint, were caught selling customers’ location data. We need more protection from companies and governments.
There were also bright spots in the last year. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect, and digital rights organizations are collaborating to ensure it is enforced. Public pressure caused several hackable toys to be pulled off the shelves.
Mark Zuckerberg recently stated that he is committed to “a privacy-focused vision for social networking.” But Facebook is also under criminal investigation for data sharing deals with companies including Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and Sony. It’s going to take more than words to rebuild the trust that’s been lost, not only with Facebook but in the internet overall.
Calls for more privacy regulation are on the rise around the world, some inspired by the idea that companies should treat our data with the same care that a bank would treat our money.
The debate about the dominant business model of the internet — and its implications for the privacy and security of our digital lives — will undoubtedly continue in the years to come. As it does, it’s important that we remember the current reality is a human creation, not a technological inevitability. We built this digital world, and we have the power to change it.