Truth in Digital
Facebook and Our Private Parts
Who Will Guard the Guardians?
“Surrender Dorothy” – The Wicked Witch of the West
That was pretty much the message Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg had for us when he testified to Congress recently about data privacy, following the Cambridge Analytica scandal. He was more polite about it than Margaret Hamilton in The Wizard of Oz, but the takeaway was more or less the same: You don't stand a chance. So why are we even having this conversation?
You don’t get to be one of the richest people in the world in your 20s without knowing a thing or two, and Zuckerberg didn’t disappoint. Gone was the trademark hoodie and earnest New Year’s resolutions, like visiting all 50 states to get to know his customers. (A few lines of code and access to the Facebook servers would have yielded much more and saved gas money.) Instead we got a well-coached, patient young man, terribly sorry about any misunderstanding that might have allowed a hostile foreign power to meddle in our election. It shan’t happen again, he promised the Senators, who for the most part, didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.
And let’s face it, who does? When it comes to Internet privacy and security, we all surrender. Who among us reads or understands terms and conditions of the privacy controls we are constantly asked to Cancel or Accept? What is our option, short of abandoning the modern world, refusing to search, stream, post, share or like, let alone send an email or use a credit card? It is an untenable tradeoff which could at best have symbolic impact. After all, as Zuckerberg confessed, Facebook tracks non-user refuseniks right alongside the party faithful.
When it comes to data capture, we can run but we cannot hide.
Today, we live in a world where our personal information is the currency we spend for the technology we love. Data is the quid pro quo for the free use of the apps and platforms that connect and delight us. Tracking and monitoring is not a byproduct of our engagement, it is the product itself. A vein of gold to be traded by tech companies for hard dollars to advertisers looking to prospect with precision. Neither trade secret nor illicit activity, it is the holy grail of business intelligence. Monetization that funds the Digital Age.
“So what?” shrug Millennials, digital natives who live blog their hookups and text 4,000 times a month. Whether a profound shift in cultural values or the innocence of youth, many appear to have few expectations of privacy and little fear of control or intrusion, whether by corporations or the government. Hacking is inevitable, by the Russians, ISIS or the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, so let’s stop worrying and learn to love the bomb.
Big mistake. Surrendering our right to privacy and allowing our personal information to be warehoused, mined and manipulated for commercial or political gain without protection is a red line we cannot cross. For the vast majority of Americans, the right to be left alone is sacrosanct. Our aversion to being watched, followed or recorded by Big Brother is core to who we are as a society, essential to our civil liberties. Yet when it comes to our digital footprint, from email to mobile to social, we are blithely disengaged from the risks we face.
Which is what the technology companies are counting on. During his testimony, Zuckerberg asserted that the “community” – meaning you and I - would police Facebook, insisting that it operate within acceptable privacy policies and controls. Regulations would not be necessary because the honorable intentions of the tech industry would meld with the wisdom of the crowds to form a utopian walled garden where a thousand algorithms would bloom.
It almost seemed like he believed it, wounded by the allegation that Facebook could be up to no good. Forget the 87 million profiles of users Cambridge Analytica got their hands on to suppress voter turnout. Or the real estate ads targeted to exclude customers by race. Nothing to see here, folks. Besides, give it a few years, he encouraged, and artificial intelligence would sort it all out. Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto!
While I am not one who believes in a Silicon Valley conspiracy to become our overlords, I do think there is remarkable tunnel vision about the asymmetric knowledge of how technology works. Let’s be generous and say they are giving us too much credit. The notion that we-the-people will police they-the-wonky is a fantasy. My wife, an accomplished professional in the art world, can’t post an article without calling me multiple times, and don’t get me started on my mother, who has been trying since early last year to edit her profile picture.
“Who will guard the guardians?” asked the Roman poet Juvenal. As we increasingly barter away information we wish to be private – health, income, politics, location, sexual identity, immigration status, even DNA – in exchange for the thrill and convenience of technology, what protections can we demand? And who will enforce them?
The answer, I am afraid, is not particularly comforting and terribly out of fashion. But it is only through intelligent and muscular government regulation that we can tame the beast and gain some measure of control over the use of our private information. It is a question for the public square and ballot box to decide what rights we are unwilling to relinquish to corporations and institutions who hold our personal data. In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) will provide much stricter oversight than our own laws, yet Google, Facebook and Netflix are predicting growth despite their compliance challenge.
The House of Cards we witnessed in Washington when Zuckerberg played his Apology Tour offers little reason for optimism. Nor does the deregulatory stance of Team Trump, which never met a consumer protection it didn’t want to gut. It remains unclear whether a champion of tough regulations is more likely to emerge on the Libertarian Right or ACLU-Left, but there has never been a more potent moment for courageous political leadership. If the brazen chutzpah of Russian hackers working to undermine our democracy doesn’t wake us up to the threat, nothing will. Power, according to Mao, grew out of the barrel of a gun. Today, it more likely springs from a database.
Millennials are wrong. This is not another “Whatever, Dude!” moment to be shrugged off like so many doomsday scenarios about the End of Days. The drip-drip-drip of data points flowing into files is ingeniously incremental. Seamless and invisible, far from a tipping point. It is digital detritus of every interaction we have online, captured for posterity, locked away in tiny little drawers with our names on them for still unimagined future use. Right now, we don’t even know what’s in them, let alone own the key.
Which is why we have to stand up and take control of our right to privacy now more than ever. Every day it gets harder to put the data genie back in its bottle, as we enter a world of voice activation and the Internet-of-Things. We need to strike a balance between our passion for technology and a deep understanding of the dangers within. Only then, can we be safe.
If the digital revolution has taught us anything, it is that we alone must guard the guardians.