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DATA PRIVACY

Published August 23, 2020


Intro to Data Privacy

In the year 2020, it seems as if everything is digitalized. Traditional ways of storing private information have now been replaced with more convenient online software. But as we begin to transfer more confidential information to online platforms, we risk jeopardizing more of our privacy. According to the Pew Research Center, around 80 percent of Americans believe that their data is being tracked by either an online platform or by the government; however, little to none have considered plans to combat the issue. Technology has become so intertwined with our daily life that we seem to ignore the possible consequences of sharing our data. Although digitization provides convenience to our everyday lives in areas such as messaging, payment, and education, users should be aware of the harm and possible effects it may have. For us to ensure our data is safe, we need to push the government to work with companies and organizations to construct safeguards for the protection of our privacy.

 

THE PERSISTENT VALUE OF PRIVACY

        In 2013, Edward Snowden revealed that the NSA (National Security Agency) had direct access to the servers of various big U.S.  internet companies as well as communication links around the world. It isn’t inconceivable that in 2020, the United States government is capable of accessing our data on major platforms like Facebook or Google. In addition to such government intrusions, there have been concerns regarding online companies that store our data. The tech platforms that store our information have access to it as well, creating a possibility of data leaks or the misuse of private information. A majority of people's private data is stored online. We therefore not only need to be aware of how the government treats our data but how the platforms where we store our data deal with our private information.

         Technology is now a crucial component of our daily lives, and even though Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said, "privacy is no longer a 'social norm,'" I believe that it is still vital to ensure the protection of one's personal information. A precise definition of privacy may be hard to come by, but to me, privacy is the feeling of being secure and comfortable. Tech companies should learn that if they don't respect our privacy, they violate our personal space. 

        There is a common misconception that data privacy isn't imperative as long as one has nothing to hide, creating a sense that with technology, the government can track and arrest criminals in an easier manner. Eric Shmidt, the former Google CEO, notoriously promoted this philosophy when he said: "If you are doing something you don't want other people to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place." 

        However, even if one has nothing to hide, privacy is still valued by many. There are many examples where we value privacy in our daily life, such as choosing to have curtains so that people walking by can't see us, practicing a musical instrument without an audience, or conversing with our friends. We seek privacy not because we are doing illegal things; we seek privacy because we feel embarrassed or don't feel like exposing ourselves to the public. 

        Data privacy is no different than any other form of privacy. The 4th amendment states that it is "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, house, papers, and effects." Online data forms part of the modern-day version of one's belongings, and tech companies or the government should be denied access to our data unless their intrusion is justified. Online data holds important information and could be valued more than one's physical belongings; therefore, it should be treated with at least the same respect. 

        In 2020 privacy seems to be a thing of the past; however, by raising awareness and consciously striving to protect our privacy, laws could be enforced to protect online data. Privacy is essential to control what others see about us and shapes our sense of security. Yet many people don't understand how vulnerable their data is when stored online. 

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THE UNKNOWN RISK OF SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS

        As social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and WeChat become more popular, the risk of infringing upon our privacy through online data becomes more apparent. According to Data Reportal, there are around 3.8 billion social media users around the world. As social media gains popularity each day, more problems emerge through these platforms. From accounts being targeted by hackers, to user concerns over what happens with our data, it seems as if privacy has really become a thing of the past.

        Many of these popular social media platforms function through storing and publishing user data. These functions include messaging and creating posts. While using the media, user info is collected by the platform. For example, when setting up an account, one is usually required to provide information like a phone number, name, birth date, and Gmail. Another example of how social media implicates user data is how social media platforms are able to learn about the locations the user has visited. Snapchat has around 173 million daily users, and a function on its platform called Snapmap raises security concerns as it tracks the location of the user every time the user uses the app. It is used to see a friend's location and is one of Snapchat's popular functions. 

        Michael Kasdan, an attorney who is a partner at Wiggin and Dana specializing in privacy, says that "teenage users, a lot of them don't necessarily think about the privacy implications, they're more thinking about connecting with their friends, and whatever ...everyone else is doing." Even though users can choose who sees their location, many, especially teenagers, tend to allow everyone to see their location. However, this raises security concerns as many teenagers don't understand that sharing their location could mean being constantly monitored. Sharing your location to your closest friends may be fine, but in Snapchat, users often share their location with all of their friends. Snapchat friends whom someone barely knows could know their location at almost all times. If users knew this, most likely, they would change how they use the function. Further, Snapchat could potentially find out where users live, work, or go to school. With this information, the company itself has the power to sell user data to third-parties resources or use the data for its own unregulated ends. Social media platforms such as Snapchat have much more information about users than they may fathom.

        With access to user information, platforms are able to have not only an understanding of your basic personal information but a sense of your friends and political tendencies. For example, according to a New York Times study, Facebook is able to label users as conservative or liberal by analyzing the web pages you follow or like. When Mark Zuckerberg testified in front of Congress on the issue of how Facebook handles user data in 2018, a problem presented was that advertisements could access user data and target a specific group of people. This is hugely controversial, as politicians could target a particular audience with their advertisements. During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump's campaign paid for its ads to be shown to those who have been labeled as moderate by Facebook. This further demonstrates the power of social media over your data and is why as social media grows, we should be more concerned over our data privacy.

        Social media overall creates the potential for security breaches. Private data stored in these social media accounts, even though they may seem safe, is actually extremely accessible to hackers and the staff of the platform you are using. Furthermore, we should be wary of social media platforms, as through interacting with social media, platforms are able to further learn about the user's private information, which can cause discomfort to many.

 

THE MOVE TOWARDS DIGITISATION

        With the increase in the use of technology, data privacy is not only a problem in social media, but in many of the platforms we use today. Many platforms besides social media store user's private data, resulting in a risk of leaked personal information. Though these tech platforms may bring convenience to our daily lives, they could be dangerous in the long run. An example of how transitioning to an online platform could be harmful is in the platforms schools use today. Many schools now require students to purchase or have access to a laptop. Though the use of school platforms allows for easier teaching, grading, and scheduling, it puts the student body at risk.

        In the last decade, schools have begun to transition toward online platforms. Schools use platforms such as Schoology and PowerSchool to store students’ and parents’ data. The FBI in 2018 issued a warning to the public about cyber threat concerns, saying that the growth of education technologies in education, along with a widespread collection of student data, could have serious privacy and safety implications if compromised or exploited by criminals. The FBI said that the type of information collected on students could include a range of personally identifiable information: biometric data; academic progress; behavioral, disciplinary and medical information; Web browsing history; students' geolocation; IP addresses used by students; and classroom activities. 

        As a student myself, I have used school teaching platforms like Schoology and Veracross, which unlike previous ways schools stored information, allow data to be easily accessible to peers, parents, or even strangers. On Schoology, a classmate can log on and find information ranging from the clubs a peer does after school, to his/her whole class schedule. A student's teachers and classmates are all listed on the platform, allowing one to have access to a large portion of his/her school information. Veracross, a different school platform, shows a student's home address, phone number, and email along with his/her parent's information. As technology progresses, schools need to take into account students’ private information, as it could be troublesome knowing that your peers could easily access your data.

        Introduced in the 1990s, online paying systems have evolved to provide users with convenience and a replacement for their chaotic wallet. These include platforms like We Chat, PayPal, Venmo, and Apple Pay. Though these paying systems have brought convenience, data privacy is jeopardized by these platforms as they are a  Hacker’s bullseye. Running online platforms means a risk for miscommunication and vulnerability. Problems like these aren't as rare as one may think, as users often accidentally disclose account information. Hackers could access a user's PayPal account by simply having access to their email password, allowing them to go onto the PayPal website and request a password change. The use of online platforms also increases the risk of bugs, allowing hackers to slip through and steal user's money. Not only do users risk getting their money taken, but they also risk revealing what they have previously bought through their account. These digital transactions could be easily tracked and traced. Paying online can bring convenience to many people; however, as payments move online, there is an increased risk of crimes such as identity theft, data breaches, and fraudulent transactions. 

        Digitization can be beneficial for businesses, companies as well as the community in general. However, we should be aware of digitization and its risks. As the number of apps and users increase, so will the bugs and holes in the system, creating an opportunity for cyber attacks. A large number of students, for example, due to the increased use of technology in schools, are now vulnerable to cyber attacks and identity theft. The importance of changing the way society advances using technology is crucial as people's lives could become ruined if the issue isn't dealt with.

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A POSSIBLE SOLUTION FOR DATA PRIVACY

        Although storing our private data online increases the chance of leaking our information, if companies are willing to collaborate with users and the government steps up, we could potentially decrease concerns regarding data privacy. Through collaboration, the public would be able to have a better understanding of the use of our data, and hopefully be able to help companies develop regulations that suit the community of users as well as the platforms themselves. 

        In order to reduce the data privacy risks, the government and tech companies should work together to establish guidelines. An example of how this may operate is through an agency like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). The FTC is an independent agency of the United States government whose mission is to enforce U.S civil antitrust law. The FTC charges companies in order to regulate unfair, deceptive, or fraudulent trade practices. In 2014, the FTC issued charges to Snapchat for deceiving consumers by falsely representing that their messages disappear after being viewed. Even though the FTC has done a good job regulating companies on user data, companies are able to avoid their regulations, as shown by the FTC’s settlement with  Facebook. The FTC fully regulated and ensured privacy within the Facebook community; however, the FTC wasn't able to change Facebook's business model, nor hold Mark Zuckerberg accountable. Instead, the FTC allowed Facebook to quietly settle the case without following the FTC's original 2010 consent order. The truth is that the FTC wasn’t made to handle these tech corporations. Fining a $629 billion company $5 billion dollars won't incentivize it to obey the law. A  new approach is needed. The FTC was founded in 1914 to act against monopolistic practices. With new tech companies that don't fall within this purview, the only way to truly regulate the new tech landscape is by creating a new government agency. 

        Having a new government agency that works with these online platforms is vital to ensure the security of our data. Tech companies need to store our data in some shape or form to operate, which a new agency would be able to allow while securing our private data. A separate government agency would benefit both the company and the users as it would keep the platform's functionality while making sure user data is safe. Through ongoing collaboration between the company and the agency, the government could solve problems with the company by preventing them in the first place, instead of issuing a fine and having the company make changes on its own. Therefore, creating a separate government agency to work with these companies could function better, allowing for a smoother transition for companies who rely on user data to operate. The agency could operate by assigning individual members to go through and check these companies for security violations and make reports that are open to the public, discussing how the company is protecting user data. If there seems to be a privacy issue, then the agency could collaborate with the company to find a way to prevent security violations. Having regular meetings between agency members and the company would also allow for a better way to avoid privacy issues beforehand. Unlike the FTC, a new agency would, instead of relying on companies to fix themselves, try to solve problems through collaboration and providing support to these companies. The new agency would also inform users about what is occurring with their data, which allows users to feel comfortable while using a platform. 

        These tech platforms are often a source of communication, yet don't communicate with their users enough. When the Observer revealed the harvesting of 50 million user’s data, Mark Zuckerberg was silent for the first few days even when reporters asked for possible investigations and regulations regarding his company. The event made #DeleteFacebook go viral as a cycle of negative news began. If there had been better communication with users, the result would have been different.

        Users need to be well informed to provide feedback and establish trust with the companies. Representatives of companies need to notify users of progressions with their platform instead of keeping them in the dark. Informing users on what the company is doing with the data is crucial to maintaining trust. By having interviews, making public statements, or video updates, having interactions within the community would help minimize the risk of data privacy concerns. Knowing what tech companies are doing helps users prevent mistakes, such as accidentally consenting to something they had little to no awareness of before. Companies need to build trust with users through these interactions instead of trying to hide information. Through concerted collaboration between government and tech companies, data privacy can be protected while maintaining the many benefits of our digitized world.