We’re about to find out what happens when privacy is all but gone
By Alex Kingsbury
Whenever I see one of those billboards that read: “Privacy. That’s iPhone,” I’m overcome by the urge to cast my own iPhone into a river. Of lava.
That’s not because the iPhone is any better or worse than other smartphones when it comes to digital privacy. (I’d take an iPhone over an Android phone in a second; I enjoy the illusion of control over my digital life as much as the next person.)
What’s infuriating is the idea that carrying around the most sophisticated tracking and monitoring device ever forged by the hand of man is consistent with any understanding of privacy. It’s not. At least not with any conception of privacy our species had pre-iPhone.
Reconciling the idea of privacy with our digital world demands embracing a profound cognitive dissonance. To exist in 2022 is to be surveilled, tracked, tagged and monitored — most often for profit. Short of going off the grid, there’s no way around it.
Consider just last week: Apple released a surprise software update for its iPhones, iPads and Macs meant to remove vulnerabilities the company says may have been exploited by sophisticated hackers. The week before that, a former Google engineer discovered that Meta, parent company of Facebook and Instagram, was using a piece of code to track users of the Facebook and Instagram apps across the internet without their knowledge. In Greece, the prime minister and his government have been consumed by a widening scandal in which they are accused of spying on the smartphones of an opposition leader and a journalist.
And this month Amazon announced that it was creating a show called “Ring Nation” — a sort of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” made up of footage recorded by the company’s Ring doorbells. These video doorbells, sold by Amazon and other companies, are now watching millions of American homes, and they are often used by police departments as, effectively, surveillance networks. All in the name of fighting crime, of course.
Step back, and what we’re looking at is a world where privacy simply doesn’t exist anymore. Instead of talking about old notions of privacy, and how to defend or get back to that ideal state, we should start talking about what comes next.
That reality is becoming clearer to Americans after the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs, which eliminated the federal right to abortion. They now understand that their phone location data, internet searches and purchase history are all fair game for police — especially in states that do not protect abortion rights, and where women can be hunted down for their health care choices. If the courts once defended the right to have an abortion as part of a broader right to privacy, by vaporizing that right, the Roberts court shattered many of Americans’ conceptions of privacy as well.
In 2019, Times Opinion investigated the location tracking industry. Whistleblowers gave us a data set that included millions of pings from individual cellphones around daily commutes, churches and mosques, abortion clinics, the Pentagon, even the headquarters of the CIA. “If the government ordered Americans to continuously provide such precise, real-time information about themselves, there would be a revolt,” the editorial board wrote.
Yet despite years of talk, Congress is no closer to passing robust privacy legislation than it was two decades ago when the idea first came up. Even its baby steps aren’t encouraging. Two bills in the current session aim to roll back some of this mass monitoring around abortion and reproductive health in particular, although neither one is likely to pass.
One, the Fourth Amendment Is Not for Sale Act, would prevent law enforcement and other government agencies from purchasing location data and other sensitive information from data brokers. Another, the My Body, My Data Act, would forbid tech companies to keep, use or share some personal health information absent written consent. Neither bill would prevent police officers with a court order from getting such information.
Some tech companies, like Google, have announced voluntary measures to protect some user data around reproductive health care. A group of hundreds of Google employees is circulating a petition to strengthen privacy protections for users who look for information about abortion through its search engine.
But even if those bills pass and some tech companies take more steps, there are simply too many tech companies, government entities, data brokers, internet service providers and others tracking everything we do.
Protecting digital privacy is not in the interest of the government, and voters don’t seem to care much about privacy at all. Nor is it in the interest of tech companies, which sell users’ private data for a profit to advertisers. There are too many cameras, cell towers and inscrutable artificial intelligence engines in operation to live an unobserved life.
For years, privacy advocates, who foresaw the contours of the surveilled world we now live in, warned that privacy was a necessary prerequisite for democracy, human rights and a flourishing of the human spirit. We’re about to find out what happens when that privacy has all but vanished.