Reviews | We need to take back our privacy
I gave up – and I’ve been coding since I was a teenager, have a degree in computer programming, worked in the software industry, and read and written about privacy and technology my whole life of adult. I feel like friends with similar professional profiles also gave up.
Burning phones – which you use and throw away – sounds cool but is difficult in practice. Matt Blaze, a leading expert in digital security and encryption, said trying to hold down a phone to burn required “using almost everything I know about communication systems and security”, and he still wasn’t sure he had completely escaped surveillance and identification.
How about leaving your phone behind? Let me say, good luck.
Even if you don’t carry a digital device and only use cash, commercially available biometric databases can perform large-scale facial recognition. Clearview AI claims to have more than 10 billion images of people pulled from social media and news articles that it sells to law enforcement and private entities. Given the ubiquity of cameras, it will soon be difficult to walk anywhere without being recognized by the algorithm. Even a mask is not a barrier. Algorithms can also recognize people from other attributes. In China, police have used “walk recognition” – using artificial intelligence to identify people by the way they walk and by bodily characteristics other than their face.
The protections you think you have may not be as extensive as you think. The confidentiality that federal health privacy law provides for conversations with a physician does not always apply to prescriptions. In 2020, Consumer Reports revealed that GoodRX, a popular drug discount and coupon service, was selling information about drugs people were looking for or buying to Facebook, Google, and other data marketing companies. GoodRX said it would stop, but there is no law against them, nor any pharmacy, to do that.
This data becomes an even more powerful form of monitoring when combined with other data. A woman who regularly eats sushi and suddenly stops or stops taking Pepto-Bismol or starts taking vitamin B6 can be easily identified as a person following pregnancy guidelines. If this woman does not give birth, she could end up being questioned by the police, who might think she had an abortion. (Already, in some places, women who seek medical attention after a miscarriage have reported being questioned for this purpose.)
I haven’t even had access to all the data collected on billions of people by giant tech platforms like Facebook and Google. “Well, don’t use them,” you might say. Again, good luck.
In 2019, when Kashmir Hill – now a New York Times reporter – tried to remove Google from her online life, she found it everywhere. Apps like Lyft and Uber, which relied on Google Maps, and Spotify, which relied on Google Cloud, wouldn’t work. The Times loaded very slowly (trying to load Google Analytics, Google Pay, Google News, Google Ads, and a Doubleclick, then waiting for them to fail before continuing). After a week, his devices had attempted to communicate with Google’s servers more than 100,000 times. Hill also tried this for the other five big tech companies and found them hard to avoid as well.