Opinion | We Need to Take Back Our Privacy

I gave up — and I have been coding since I was a tween, have a degree in computer programming, have worked in the software industry, and have been reading and writing about privacy and technology for my whole adult life. My impression is that friends with similar professional profiles […]

I gave up — and I have been coding since I was a tween, have a degree in computer programming, have worked in the software industry, and have been reading and writing about privacy and technology for my whole adult life. My impression is that friends with similar professional profiles have given up, too.

Using burner phones — which you use and discard — sounds cool but is difficult in practice. Matt Blaze, a leading expert on digital security and encryption, said that trying to maintain a burner phone required “using almost everything I know about communications systems and security,” and he still wasn’t sure he had completely evaded surveillance and identification.

How about leaving your phone behind? Let me just say, good luck.

Even if you don’t carry a digital device and only use cash, commercially available biometric databases can carry out facial recognition at scale. Clearview AI says it has more than 10 billion images of people taken from social media and news articles that it sells to law enforcement and private entities. Given the ubiquity of cameras, it will soon be difficult to walk anywhere without being algorithmically recognized. Even a mask is no barrier. Algorithms can recognize people from other attributes as well. In China, the police have employed “gait recognition” — using artificial intelligence to identify people by the way they walk and by body features other than their face.

Protections you think you have may not be as broad as you think. The confidentiality that federal health privacy law provides to conversations with a doctor doesn’t always apply to prescriptions. In 2020, Consumer Reports exposed that GoodRX, a popular drug discount and coupons service, was selling information on what medications people were searching or buying to Facebook, Google and other data marketing firms. GoodRX said it would stop, but there is no law against them, or any pharmacy, doing this.

That data becomes even more powerful whenmerged. A woman who regularly eats sushi and suddenly stops, or stops taking Pepto-Bismol, or starts taking vitamin B6 may be easily identified as someone following guidelines for pregnancy. If that woman doesn’t give birth she might find herself being questioned by the police, who may think she had an abortion. (Already, in some places, women who seek medical help after miscarriages have reported questioning to this effect.)

I haven’t even gotten to all the data collected on billions of people by giant technology platforms like Facebook and Google. “Well, don’t use them,” you might say. Again, good luck.

In 2019, when Kashmir Hill — now a reporter at The New York Times — tried to cut Google out of her online life, she found it everywhere. Apps like Lyft and Uber, which relied on Google maps, and Spotify, which relied on Google Cloud, wouldn’t work. The Times loaded very slowly (trying to load for Google analytics, Google Pay, Google News, Google ads and a Doubleclick, and then waiting for them to fail before proceeding). By the end of a week, her devices had tried to communicate with Google’s servers more than 100,000 times. Hill tried this for other big five tech companies too, and found them similarly hard to avoid.

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