Is Alexa an electronic intruder in your home? Can you go anywhere, including your Airbnb rental, without showing up in a surveillance camera video? Are your social media sites conduits to reveal your behavior patterns and preferences to advertisers – and politicians?
All are questions relating to the privacy we have forfeited without realizing it in the digital age.
The threats to privacy and a level playing field have provoked strong proposals from the likes of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. As a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Warren has called for the break-up of big tech monopolies and regulation to prevent self-dealing – and often opaque – privacy policies.
Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has led the way for many years on net neutrality, the policy that would prohibit internet providers from manipulating access and online speed to favor their own prime customers and disadvantage competitors. He also has criticized Facebook and other digital leviathans for cashing in on the data they collect, often without express user consent or knowledge, that is sold to advertisers or political advocacy groups.
However, breaking up big tech companies and guaranteeing net neutrality don’t exactly address digital privacy concerns. Those policies don’t litigate the fundamental question of whether consumers unwittingly surrender their privacy for the convenience of tech devices. They don’t rise to the level of asking where the boundaries are between what’s private and what’s fair game.
The New York Times has launched a month-long initiative called the Privacy Project, which will examine issues surrounding privacy. In its Sunday opinion section, the Times published pieces from various points of view. Author Samantha Irby said her love of connectivity outweighed any concerns about loss of privacy. Law professor Tim Wu said corporate greed has stripped away privacy for financial gain. The Times publisher writes about how the newspaper views its responsibility in the digital age.
Other articles discussed the safety of women online and how insurance companies can track Fitbit data to use in determining your health insurance rates. Recode editor Kara Swisher wrote that Americans have surrendered too much control over their digital lives and need government regulation to get it back. Columnist Ross Douthat said the solution to compromised privacy is relying less on the internet. Author KJ Dell’Antonia urged people to pull back from social media, which can be an accomplice in sacrificing privacy for families and children.
Serious and stimulating stuff, which the Times intends as conversation-starters. “In recent years, as we’ve been blurring the boundaries between what’s public and what’s private,” Times Editor James Bennet wrote, “we’ve been doing so largely by accident, or by leaving the decisions to the vagaries of innovation and the pull of market incentives.”
Ironically, this conversation is likely to occur online. We are that digitally dependent. But where the conversation occurs is less significant than whether it occurs. Technological giddiness and laissez-faire attitudes aren’t adequate substitutes for what Bennet refers to as “deliberate choices.”
A good place to start in forming your own views is the Times Privacy Project. Some of the articles may enrage you. Others may alarm you. All of them seek to inform you of the choices we all may need to make – sooner than later.