2019 Was One of the Biggest Years for Privacy: Here’s Why

Despite such a rapid news cycle and shortened attention span of both the public and the media, 2019 has been quite the year for privacy, a topic that continues to be part of our everyday discourse. Compared to just a few years ago, society was bustling amidst new consumer technology such as social media, Siri, Alexa FaceID, but now, driven by increased scrutiny, we’re now understanding what implications these new technologies have on our privacy.

We wanted to go over some of the major privacy events that happened earlier this year to understand how they might shape our views and thoughts around privacy in the future.

New laws and policies loom on the horizon

The GDPR, which came into force in 2018 was the first major piece of legislation that put consumers’ privacy front and center by holding companies and governments accountable to ensure proper user data privacy and protection. Since then, efforts in the US are aiming to adopt similar policies.

The one looming in the distance is the CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act). Set to come into effect on Jan 1st, 2020, the CCPA is a GDPR-style bill that may have companies rethink their national data policy and privacy policies because of how strict and expansive the CCPA is.

The IAPP recently compiled a list of similar privacy bills that are being considered by multiple states, further highlighting how government is reacting to the fact that its constituents want to take better control of their privacy.

Cities are also taking matters into their own hands. San Francisco, Somerville, and Oakland banned government use of facial recognition technology, something we’ll discuss later in this article.

Smart cities face a big blowback

In October 2017, Sidewalk Labs, an Alphabet (Google’s holding company) company, announced a partnership with Toronto to develop a smart city. If you visit Sidewalk Lab’s homepage, you’ll see they are “reimagining cities to improve the quality of life.”

Sidewalk Labs aims to improve and innovate cities via the use of technology and smart tools that collect data. But until recently, there was little said about how smart cities handled privacy and data. The project raises serious concerns about how the introduction of data-collecting technologies across an entire city leaves any room for personal privacy. It also blurs the line between consent and the concept of opt-in and opt-out. Is it fair to say an individual has the freedom to ‘opt-out’ of a smart city when the only options are avoiding it, leaving it, or moving to another city?

The Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) has sued Canada’s three levels of government over the agreement between Sidewalk Labs and Waterfront Toronto pointing to the fact that Canadians’ privacy rights were violated when they entered into the agreement. 

Sidewalk Labs is hearing concerns over privacy and released a concept of icons that would communicate what (and how) data is being collected and they brought on. We understand that Sidewalk Labs have lofty dreams of integrating everyday life with technology unlike ever before and it surfaces questions that don’t have easy answers. What should the balance be between allowing citizens to live in surveillance if it means they have access to convenient living? And who should make those decisions?

Facial recognition gets the scrutiny it deserves

Facial recognition, unfortunately, is starting to creep into everyday life, from retailers, to cities, to airports, and grocery stores. If you use FaceID to unlock your phone, then you’ve been exposed to facial recognition technology.

But this year, there has been a lot of pushback on facial recognition tech and for good reason. Facial Recognition is often used on individuals without their consent and has dodgy opt-out policies (if any). Facial recognition technology is also used by law enforcement despite many studies and instances of facial recognition producing inaccurate results or biased results based on race and ethnicity

Fortunately, there has been resistance across the consumer, corporate, and government side. We mentioned how cities banned government use and tech companies, scientists, and even presidential candidates have called on the government to regulate the widespread use of facial recognition and to stop using it for law enforcement purposes.

News reports continue to understandably, stoke concerns of facial recognition technology. A published report showed that the FBI hasn’t assessed their FR technology for privacy and accuracy standards, despite pressure from the Government Accountability Office (GAO). And a major biometric database was found unencrypted and unprotected, marking a major breach of data that can’t be changed (unlike a password) As long as the unregulated and unmitigated use of FR technology continues to spread, good journalism will continue to highlight its issues and push corporations and governments to take action.  

The New York Times Privacy Project

In April 2019, the New York Times published the Privacy Project, an ongoing collection of articles and opinion pieces dedicated to exploring how technology, government, and the public are all shaping what we deem acceptable in the world of privacy. Topics such as facial recognition, social media, the Times’ own data collection practices, and more are all discussed and new content continues to pour out every week.

The fact that an authoritative voice that shapes our national discourse is dedicating their resources to the subject of privacy highlights how the topic is becoming top of mind in today’s world. With every newly published article, more and more people are becoming aware of what privacy means, asking themselves what they feel about it, and considering the tradeoffs they’re making as they continue to live online alongside massive data-collecting entities such as Facebook, Google, Amazon. 

Voice assistants listen to more than we know

It started with Amazon. A report showed that workers and contractors were listening into users’ voice recording on Alexa, to nearly everyone’s surprise. Soon after, similar reports were published that a similar program was in place at Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook. Outrage ensued and whether or not it was misplaced, the reaction marks a key moment in public opinion showing that tech companies will no longer have free passes to introduce features, devices, or technologies without being subject to further scrutiny on what we may be giving up in exchange.

We hope that this will force companies to start adopting a privacy-first mindset when it comes to new tools, services, and features.

Facebook’s nightmare year

It seems like every month gets worse and worse for Facebook and for good reason. Much of the trouble started with the Cambridge Analytica (CA) scandal which showed how easy it was for CA to legally obtain massive amounts of data from Facebook users’ and their friends without direct consent.

Further news items showed how invasive their data collection practices are, how they track everything you do outside of Facebook (even if you deactivate your account), how secret data partnerships with companies gave them access to your data, and most recently, poor information security when it came to password storage and encryption and extremely shady practices in a case where they asked for email addresses, passwords, then “accidentally” uploaded contacts from those accounts directly from said email addresses. Even Instagram wasn’t able to avoid bad press as a report detailed how one of their close partners were able to scrape and mine data such as stories that were designed to expire after 24 hours. 

It’s a lot.

We wanted to highlight Facebook specifically because the focus on major companies has increased significantly, especially when it comes to matters of privacy, security, and ensuring that these companies are communicating clearly and giving users options and control over their data. This is more than just being anti-Facebook, anti-advertising, or anti-data collection, it’s about transparency and honesty.

The rest of the year may bode well for privacy

2019 has proved to be one of the most important years for privacy, with the subject jumping into the mainstream media and becoming part of everyday conversation. If this kind of fervor continues, organizations and lawmakers will be forced to include privacy as part of their decision-making processes.

As long as we continue to hold the right people and companies accountable, and shed a light on what’s at stake here, we can ensure that the world veers towards a more private, and thus, a more free world.

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