Modern technology has provoked much change in the world but the approach to civil liberties have so far failed to keep up
In the 1990s a clever entrepreneur came up with a brilliant idea during the wrong time. His name was David Chaum, and his wonderful ability in mathematics allowed him to create a unique digital payment system known as eCash. It was a “technically perfect product which made it possible to safely and anonymously pay over the Internet.” There was just one problem with Mr Chaum’s spectacular business plan; nobody wanted it. He managed to come up with a piece of software during a time in which consumers w
ere too engrossed in the amazing convenience that the advancements in technology and online shopping brought to their lives. As a result of such naivety, Mr Chaum’s company, DigiCash, went bankrupt after a mere 5 year life span.
How people would have loved such a system after the events of 2013. All sorts of malicious actors, from deceitful phishers to ruinous hackers, swarm the internet. Yet the world seems to have come to this realisation a little late; it took a former CIA agent turned-whistleblower and several reports of devastating cyber attacks against various firms to highlight the importances of privacy and data protection in the modern digital age.
However this is not exactly the fault of lawmakers and regulators. The revolutionary entrepreneurialism of Silicon Valley and the venture capitalists who fuel it creates a scenario in which technological innovations are appreciated greatly by consumers, but forget about the wider legal and societal impacts of their work. All the while, the seemingly important considerations like security and privacy, are essentially forgotten, or perhaps only considered when it eventually (and inevitably) becomes a problem.
This attitude towards the development of modern technology by business seems to have a contagious affect on consumers as well. They too have been so willingly to embrace technology and be dazzled by its apparent brilliance that they forget about their own privacy or security. So much so that when a window pops up on their desktop informing users that a software update is needed, their immediate reaction is to close down that window as quickly as possible to stop it from ruining their quality time with their machines. Or when signing up for a new digital service or app, they willingly give away their details in a hurry to be immersed by what it has to offer.
As a result, businesses take advantage of the apparent merits of the information age to come up with lucrative business models. Amazon uses purchasing history data to suggest and promote products which users are more likely to buy. Facebook uses a similar model to sell ads to businesses. Or users may voluntarily provide their data, such as revealing their location to use a maps app. Essentially, in the modern digital world, data has become the new currency.
Yet when the Snowden revelations occurred and people learned that their internet lives may have been or will be spied on by their government, they were furious. But their anger seemed to make them no less ignorant. This was clearly evident during an episode of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver from last year in which various US citizens were quizzed on the subject of government surveillance. It demonstrated that hardly any of the public had a clear idea of who Snowden was, what he did and nor did they have sufficient knowledge of the programs through which the US government used to snoop on them.
But this should not be interpreted as people not caring about their privacy. Numerous opinion polls suggest that privacy is still a very desirable notion. The general way in which society has embraced technology instead suggests that the idea of privacy in the digital age has changed from the traditional notions. It is more about people having control of their data and personal information. There is some data they wish to make public, some they wish to share just with other trusted parties with consent, and some which they wish to keep private.
Although, giving users the tools they need to adequately control their data is not always provided. A study conducted by Lancaster University looked at whether the privacy policies of the 16 most popular social media platforms could be translated into the controls they provide to their users. It found that, for the most part, this was not the case.
Thus, this is where policy should be focused; greater user empowerment. Modern technology has been developed with privacy not considered. The internet, for example, was made to share data, not keep it private. Thus, users should be given the ability to control their privacy and also given information in a tangible form to make them aware of exactly what happens to their data when they volunteer it. As Steve Jobs once put it, “Privacy means knowing what you’re signing up for.” This is, perhaps, what privacy in the digital age truly is.