Cambridge Analytica abused our private information to manipulate us. Why are we surprised? Why is anyone surprised?
In the Bible, there is the story of two brothers, Jacob and Esau. Esau was the first born and consequently had all the privileges of that birthright. One day, Esau was hungry, smelled a soup his younger brother was cooking, and ended up trading his birthright for a bowl of soup. It’s a silly idea when you think of it. Why would he trade away something so valuable for something so fleeting and frivolous?
But the lesson is, or at least ought to be, clear.
Every minute of every day, millions upon millions us worldwide share our identities, personal information, personal preferences, and all sorts of corners of ourselves with anyone who’ll listen. And it’s not just Facebook collecting it, either, but Google, Apple, all of them. Just think of the list of information we provide to these companies. They know who we talk to and for how long, who our friends are and how to reach them. If you have an Android phone, Google knows everywhere you go and how long you stay there. On the benevolent side, they’re simply refining their map app to give a more accurate idea of how long it’s going to take you to get somewhere. But should we assume that Google is always going to be benevolent with our personal information, especially when some wealthy data firm comes offering a huge wad of cash? Facebook was more than happy to get paid by working with Cambridge Analytica. We provide companies like Facebook with a wealth of information free of charge about ourselves such as our likes and dislikes, and they turn around and sell it for untold millions. For likes. We give this up for likes. For convenience. For expediency. For attention. Or in the case of one study by researchers at Stanford, pizza. We now have scientific data to show that our claims about wanting privacy and security are not reflected in our actions, as we readily give up our privacy if it means that app we just downloaded is going to work better.
Maybe, like Esau, we don’t understand the value.
Some say that if you’re not doing anything wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide, but this is wrong. Very, very wrong. It would be akin to saying that if you don’t have anything illegal in your house, you’ve got no reason to lock the door. In many cases throughout history and well into the present, people have found themselves being the only one around willing to do what’s right, which puts them in a very good reason to hide. Dissidents in a tyrannical regime like under Putin’s Russia, for example, can get killed if they’re found out. Go beyond that. Your personal information includes your home address if anyone decides to stalk you or your family, as well as your banking and credit information. What if health insurance companies could access your personal medical records when deciding what your premium should be? Or worse. What if, and this is just an ‘if,’ there was a way to access enough information about your inner fears and emotions to be able to target content to you so surgically that one could manipulate your opinions and perceptions, perhaps get you to vote one way or another?
Any system with the potential for abuse will get abused. We all know internet giants like Google and Facebook have been harvesting our personal information for years. It doesn’t have to be them, either, but anyone who might gain some edge over you just by knowing a few things about you.
No. Our privacy is extremely valuable, and one should not give it up so readily. And I wouldn’t wait for the government to regulate it for us. And I wouldn’t wait for the company to honor some ‘terms of service’ they can change on a whim. I, for one, am taking control of mine.