Signing Away Our Right to Privacy

In the wake of Cambridge Analytica obtaining the information of over 50 million Facebook users, Dean Swift examines users’ rights to privacy when using apps. The news that Cambridge Analytica may have helped the Trump campaign win the USA presidential election caused a massive stir that dominated headlines for a fortnight. The company had violated an agreement with Facebook, and gathered over 50 million users’ data, even the data of those who had not downloaded the app that allowed this. The word ‘violation’ is used, as Facebook claim this was not a data breach. By Facebook’s own admission they did not do enough to regulate the data transmission.Another app, Grindr, introduced a policy which was largely applauded of having its users state their HIV/AIDS status, due to the reported risk among its community. However, they then shared this information to third-parties, and were roundly condemned and have since vowed not to do so again. These are only two examples, but there are many ways in which our private information is becoming increasingly less private. The questions that arises from such actions are: Do we care? Do legislators care? And will the law prevent this?From an American perspective, there seems to be very little indication that there will be adequate law reform in the area. Mark Zuckerberg, testified before the American Congress regarding the breach. Many had assumed such a session would be damning for Facebook. Facebook’s stock, which had been dropping after the Cambridge Analytica debacle, in which they threatened to sue the Guardian in an attempt to prevent the story from releasing, began climbing both during and after the testimony.One would perhaps question how this was possible, with many predicting only further damage to Facebook. Both quick and in-depth viewing of the footage would quickly clear up any doubts as to why. Many of the committee simply did not understand what the issues were, or simply how Facebook acted. Senator John Kennedy apparently believed the user agreement was the issue, saying “your user agreement sucks… you want it written in English, in non-Zwahili,” then going on to say they want to know who they’re sharing your data with. This was in spite of Facebook already making this available, and proceeding to ask questions which Facebook had already answered. Is it any wonder why with this level of scrutiny led to Facebook’s stock increasing? The testimony was largely a win for Zuckerberg, or as one Congresswoman put it “Zuckerman,” and Facebook, as the members appeared to be uninformed about the issues of privacy in the digital age, or indeed about to Facebook itself.On the European side, there appears to be wider protection, in the form of the General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into force on May 25th 2018. The underlying principle of this regulation is that an individual, company, or legal entity shall process the personal data of an individual within the EU. On its face value this appears to be a large move in favour of an individual’s personal privacy, however scratch just below the surface and cracks immediately begin to show. The easiest way around this is simply to have a user agreement, to which said user can only use the app if they agree to the agreement, wherein there is usually a policy regarding user data. To use these apps, we sign away our right to privacy. Google the underlying operator of all Android phones, require a user to have a Google account to download and use their apps, their privacy policy allows Google to “share personal information with companies, organisations or individuals outside of Google when we have your consent to do so.” It is then fair to ask, even in an EU context, if our private information is safe when we place it in the hands of private corporations which use it to identify ads we might be susceptible to. Are we the product, and not the consumer?Perhaps when pondering these issues, one needs to consider the idea of applications, and further social media sites in a simpler manner. Facebook’s business model is completely reliant on using and selling users’ private information, which primarily can be seen in the form of targeted ads on the user’s profile. Facebook deny responsibility for any ‘violation,’ while still refusing to police the access to user information. Edward Snowden, famous for releasing detailed information of American monitoring of individuals both inside USA and outside through the NSA, tweeted “Businesses that make money by collecting and selling detailed records of private lives were once plainly described as ‘surveillance companies.” Their rebranding as ‘social media’ is the most successful deception since the Department of War became the Department of Defense.”We as users could refuse to use these apps, but is that a reasonable expectation in today’s environment? It appears all legal efforts are doomed to fail, so it is pertinent to ask do we care enough? Have we set a price for our privacy, or rather are we simply willing to give it away for free?