The widespread collection and monetization of citizens’ data used to fund companies like Google and Facebook is often referred to as the “data economy”. The vast amount of information that these companies hold has since been used to predict and influence people’s behavior on a huge scale. Calling for the end of the data economy is the primary focus of Privacy is Power (published September 2020), an Economist Book of the Year by Carissa Véliz.
Carissa Véliz is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Oxford, specializing in privacy and AI ethics. Privacy is Power explores how our privacy has been eroded by big tech and governments and how that has challenged the very pillars of our democracy.
Privacy is Power takes its name from the power that retaining our privacy gives us, both individually and collectively. When authorities and corporations have less information about you, they have less control over you and are less able to influence your purchases, votes, or other decisions.
We interviewed Carissa Véliz via video link to discuss her research, discover the effects the data economy and mass surveillance have had on society, and find out what we can do about it.
How did you get into your line of work? What first interested you in privacy?
“My family were Spanish refugees from the Spanish civil war. The war was a taboo subject in my family, and when they died, I went to the archives and was able to find out a lot about them. That made me wonder whether I had a right to know those things that they hadn’t wanted to tell us when they were still alive.
It was then that I realized there was a huge gap in the literature in philosophy — few philosophers had written about privacy, and the little that was written was outdated. It was precisely that summer that Snowden came out with his revelations, and that just completely shook me.
There’s nobody in philosophy who has thought about privacy in the same way we have thought about freedom, or justice, or these other big topics. But privacy is one of those big topics! So I changed the subject of my dissertation to be about privacy instead.”
Why should the everyday person care about their privacy?
“I argue that privacy is really a kind of power, and a lack of it gives others power over you. So the more other people know about you, the more they can try to figure out what you’re going to do next and try to interfere with that. That’s exactly what companies and governments are doing, and that’s a bad thing for democracy. For democracy to be strong, you need the bulk of power to be with the citizenry.”
Do people currently have a lot of choice when it comes to how their data is used on the internet?
“In some cases, you don’t have a lot of choice — for example, if your job requires you to use insecure services. But when it comes to other things, we have more choices than might be apparent. We have choices with email, messaging, and search — and those are the big three things in which people lose a lot of privacy.”
What would you say to those who say that your data is the price you have to pay for the services you want to enjoy online?
“That’s just not true. It’s just factually incorrect. People say, ‘I love using Google Search, so if I want to use a good search engine, I just have to pay with my data’. But if you look at DuckDuckGo, for example, it’s a good search engine, and it doesn’t require your data. So we can get it both ways.
What people forget is that personal data is mostly used to fund something, not to give cutting-edge services and products. There are lots of ways that we can fund things, and it doesn’t have to be through our privacy.”
What small, easy things can the average person do to start protecting their privacy today?
You can also change your privacy settings on every platform to be really cautious. Or contact your political representatives and ask them to pass legislation that protects your privacy.
There are lots of steps you can take, depending on who you are and how much time you have. You can also ask companies to give you all the data they hold on you and ask them to delete it afterwards and then get them to confirm that they have done so.
Lastly, respect other people’s privacy so they will respect yours.
We are responsible for creating a culture in which we can remain private. For many years I think we created a culture of exposure in which many people were pushed into sharing more data than they were comfortable with and to always be sharing what you’re doing and where you are. There is a lot we can do to fight that.”
What would the internet look like if people had more choices over how their data is used?
“In some ways, the internet would look much the same. We would have websites working well, we would have video streaming services, we would have all the things that you love.
In some ways, a more private internet would give a better experience. For example, the main reason social media websites like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are designed the way they are, is to promote the most engagement possible. The more you see on their respective platforms, the more ads you see and the more data you give them — and that’s how they fund themselves.
If social media platforms were funded in a different way, the internet wouldn’t be designed to promote that kind of engagement, and that would lead to a much more benevolent internet. We would see less trolling, less anger, and less hate speech because it turns out that this kind of very negative content just engages people more, so those platforms show you as much of it as possible to keep you engaged. The more enraged you are, the more you want to win the conversation, and the more you stay online. That’s good for social media companies, but it is not good for individuals or society.”
Your book, Privacy is Power, was released a couple of months ago, exposing the true extent of the data economy and how it impacts our lives. Is it possible for people to opt out of the data economy and mass surveillance? How?
“Not entirely. Not right now. Even if you did everything you possibly could, you’re still walking down the street where there are CCTV cameras, for example. There’s only so much you can do.
I think the mistake is to think, ‘Oh well, if I can’t opt out, then it doesn’t matter, and I’ll just not do anything to fight it.’ It doesn’t work like that. Even if you can’t entirely opt out, and you can’t completely protect yourself, there are lots of things you can do to make sure you are better protected. And to make a statement, too.”
Can you give an example of ways in which people are unable to opt out of the data economy?
“Facebook has a “shadow profile” on people, even if they don’t have an account or they used to have an account which they have since deleted. There have been some lawsuits about this, but Facebook claims that it has to hold these shadow profiles for security purposes. But of course, with a company that earns its keep from exploiting personal data, that is always very dangerous.
They have misused data before. For instance, it collected data about people’s phone numbers — in theory for security and authentication purposes — and then used it for marketing. So it’s not like we can trust Facebook with that kind of data.
Facebook also tracks you around the internet. There are programs with which you can get a glimpse of who is tracking you online, and you would be surprised at how often Facebook shows up. It shows up every time there is a Like button around, but also some other times. You don’t even have to interact with the Like button to be tracked.
Many people think that because they don’t have Facebook, they’re fine. But they forget that Facebook also owns WhatsApp. Facebook therefore has a network of your relationships. You also might show up in photos that your friends upload to Facebook and so on.”
The public overwhelmingly says that privacy is important, but then companies like Google and Facebook are still incredibly popular. What stops people from making a different choice? What are the barriers to choosing a more private online life?
“One barrier is just that people don’t know that they can choose alternatives without surrendering their privacy. Sometimes people ask me if there are more private alternatives, and I tell them, and they’ve just never heard of them.
I recently read about how the fiercest challenge for privacy-conscious companies is to convince people that it is the real thing — that you can have a good online experience and your privacy. People just don’t believe that you can have both anymore, and that’s really sad.
A third barrier, of course, is the network effect. For example, a lot of people use WhatsApp because their friends aren’t on Signal, so there’s a lot to do in sort of pulling each other in the right direction.
One of the problems with data in general is that it is so invisible. Most of us have an idea of what a strong door looks like, for example, made of thick steel with a good lock. But with data and apps and websites, they all look the same, so users can’t tell the good from the bad.
But of course, if you see a Facebook scandal in the news every week, but you never see a scandal about companies that protect your privacy, then that tells you something.”
What would you say to those who say that your privacy is the price you pay to be safe in society — for example, protected against terrorists — and you shouldn’t be worried if you have nothing to hide?
“All sorts of bad things happen to people who have nothing to hide. For example, you don’t need to have anything to hide to be the victim of identity theft, a crime that is growing at an alarming rate every year.
We should also be very careful with believing narratives that are convenient to big tech companies and for authorities. One of these narratives that is very convenient for tech companies is for us to think that privacy is individual and that we can just decide, person by person, to share our data or not.
As for needing our data to catch terrorists and so on — even if we encrypted all our data and didn’t have a data economy, the authorities would still have more data on us than at any time in history. So if they need data to catch the bad guys, they already have it. Furthermore, the countries that are safest are not the most surveilled; the safest countries have the most equality, with a better rule of law, and so on. So it’s just factually incorrect.
Thankfully, terrorism is a very rare event. Most people are very good citizens who definitely don’t want to harm others. Finding a needle in a haystack is really hard, and if you add troves and troves of irrelevant data, you don’t make that task any easier.”
Are there any trends that make you feel like the internet could become a more private place?
“On the one hand, the data economy is growing and growing, and you see countries like the UK really wanting to liberalize data and essentially become data havens. At the same time, you have countries like the US discussing more seriously a federal privacy law. There’s also lots of lawsuits going on — I mean, lots — that’s really encouraging. So it’s just like an epic battle, and we will see who wins.
Both sides are growing, so we’re also seeing more and more alternatives to the biggest tech companies. These are services that are privacy-friendly or make it easier to protect your privacy. They’re also working to educate people to understand the issues, and people are getting more and more aware. It’s up to us, as a society, whether we will have a future in which privacy is respected.”
Did you ever come to a conclusion about whether you had a right to know about your family or not?
“No, it’s something that I keep putting off — the question of the privacy of the dead. It’s still something that I would like to research more in the future. I haven’t written the paper that I’d like to write about it yet.
It’s changed a lot in recent years too, because the amount of data out there about us is huge, and we don’t have much control over it. Suppose I found out I was going to die in a week, and I tried to delete all of it in that time — I probably couldn’t do it. Our data lives much longer than we do.”
So, what’s next for you?
Well, I have another book in mind, but at the same time, I have so much teaching that I don’t have time to do it. When I do get around to it, the next book will be about algorithms.
One easy way you can start taking back your privacy is to sign up for a free ProtonMail account. You can import your old messages and continue emailing as usual, but all your messages will be encrypted and only accessible to your intended recipient. We will never spy on you, sell your data, or share your data with third part, because unlike other email providers, we have zero access to your messages.
ProtonMail is just one of the ways we are building an internet where privacy is the default. Combined with ProtonVPN and the rest of the suite of Proton products, we are creating free and trusted ways for everyone to stay in control of their data. For more information on the data economy, how it’s affecting our democracies, and how you can take back your privacy and power, purchase Privacy is Power. You can find out more about Carissa Véliz on her website.