16 October 2017 — TRNN
Tom Fisher of Privacy International talks to Real Media about why and how companies are able to exploit users’ personal data (inc. transcript)
TOM FISHER: There was a recent study by Stanford that showed that tech elites are liberal in the sense that they’re in favor of redistribution but they are deeply conservative when it comes to things like labor regulation. This isn’t altogether surprising when we see the type of models that are coming out of the tech community. Things like Uber, where we have drivers not employed as employees with associated benefits, but as contractors and therefore not eligible for the protections that we’ve come to expect.
So many of the business models in the tech sector are in that kind of direction. We have to be aware of the power that the kind of viewpoint of these tech elites have on the world. They’re the ones writing the algorithms that increasingly influence our lives. They’re the ones developing the machine, learning to develop the algorithms that have increasing effect on our lives, so they have a huge amount of power over how the decisions about our lives are shaped.
It’s not necessarily that they’re being evil or trying to [inaudible 00:01:31] themselves from their own ends. It’s kind of the basic assumptions that you have as a frequently white, male, tech guy living in California, writing algorithms for people all over the world.
The issue with the data we’re providing all these companies, is there’s this big power imbalance about what us as people and what the companies get and know about what is happening with all this information we’re giving. We think we’re putting up a post on Facebook that we like our neighbor’s new cat. From that Facebook is also getting information about where you are, what time you get up and you start using your devices in the morning, all these pieces that they use to make a picture of you and the whole swath of information coming out from this information we give them.
Most people would have no idea that they’re gaining so much from a simple post. There’s this big power gap then between what people think and know with what is happening with information there and what the companies can do with it. Worse than that, they’re keeping this information forever. So we can’t know what they’re going to be doing in the future and what they can piece together from the information in five, ten years, as their computer power increases, as your analytical power increases. This means that the situation is fundamentally different from most of the kind of relationships we have if we’re buying a cup of coffee from a shop or these simple kind of capitalist relationships there, because we have that massive power imbalance because people can’t make a kind of rational, informed choice about this.
We’re not aware of the value of the information we’re giving up and what the companies can do with that information. It can’t be this fair deal or fair trade between us and the companies doing this. The other issue is how clever the companies are at manipulating us to get hold of our data. I’m speaking for a friend of mine a couple of months ago who was using a fitness tracker tied to her insurance company and she would get a free smoothie every month in exchange for basically having her location tracked constantly, wherever she was.
If you think about what kind of things something as simple as location data reveals about you, you know from that where someone lives, where someone works. You probably could work out where their boyfriend or girlfriend lived, their wife, their mistress, all these people based on their movements, where you go, where you like to shop, all these things. In exchange for a free smoothie in the case of the health insurer, you’re giving them all this knowledge and information about your life.
There has been progress in regulation. In Europe, we have the general data protection regulation, GDPR, which is improving consumer data protection so people know what data companies have about them and what they are doing with this data to an increased extent. There’s still a long way to go to dealing with lots of issues we’ve talked about. But still, these are steps in the right direction. Similarly in India, the supreme court recently announced that there is a constitutional right to privacy in the Indian constitution.
We don’t know how that’s going to play out yet in terms of the legislation but now 1.3 billion people have their rights to privacy enshrined in the constitution. There are moves in the right direction when it comes to legislation and regulation, but there’s a huge amount more to do in these areas.
Consumer protection is hugely important for this field to get better protection for people over their data and over these new devices and issues coming forward. For example, we’re letting a lot of these devices into our homes, through internet connected devices, the internet of things as it’s called. We’re having cameras and microphones, smart fridges, smart kettles, all connected to the internet. This not only has privacy implications in what they know about you. It also has security implications. When these devices are so frequently insecure, people can get access to your cameras because they still have the default password on them, which is available on the internet. Then these can be used together to attack other websites, company’s devices through denial-of-service attacks for the botnets you might have heard about. We need the consumer protection to protect the privacy and also the security of these devices.
Privacy international has been around for over 20 years. We’ve been involved in important campaigns and changes. For instance a campaign against UK biometric ID cards back in the 2000s, which led to the biometric database being deleted. We’ve also been involved with numerous court cases and issues surrounding the surveillance by governments and also the broad industry surrounding surveillance. That the issues surrounding data information and companies is becoming an increasingly important issue in our work because of the growth of companies like Google, Facebook, in terms of information they have on us. It’s becoming increasingly important to begin to look at some of these issues and that huge power imbalance that is there.
We do research on a lot of these issues, not just in the UK but also around the world. We have a network of partner organizations in South America, Africa, Asia, who we work with, who conduct research and advocacy on these kind of issues in their own countries. We have a legal team who work looking, analyzing legislation and also court cases on issues surrounding surveillance and a team of technologists to make sure we’ve got this deep understanding of what is going on in this growing and changing sector. Things like the use of data in financial services. Things like connected cars. All these issues which form such an important part of our lives, so we perhaps don’t realize all the information that has now been given to companies and all the issues which are emerging from that.
Privacy International is moving on to the next stage of its ongoing legal battle with the UK government over the overreach of its hacking. Obviously taking the government to court is very expensive, so that’s why we are appealing for funds on this important issue.