fitbit stats
In our daily lives we are regularly giving away bits and pieces of our privacy. When we use Fitbit, the company is given access to where and when you have been somewhere. (Flickr, Charlene McBride)

Digital Privacy: Smart Technology and the Naive Consumer

By Leonel Mata

Leonel Mata is a third-year law student at The University of Texas School of Law. He is a member of the 2017-2018 Working Paper Series Committee, Submissions Editor of the Texas Journal of International Law, and a member of the Jessup International Moot Court team. 

Recent reports concerning the extent to which companies, such as Facebook, have been acquiring and disseminating information of individuals across the world have highlighted the fact that privacy issues do not only concern how governments make use of personal information, but how private companies have been making use of it as well. The pervasiveness of technology, combined with its necessity in the modern world, has made issue of convenience versus protection an all-important debate.

To be a part of the modern world one must be connected to it constantly. The main way of achieving this is through the internet, and the main way the internet is accessed is through our cellphones. Long gone are the days when you could easily get by using physical mail and a landline telephone. While the rise of smartphones has made our lives easier, creating a quick and easy way to access information and to contact others almost instantaneously, it has also become a way to gather information on the individual in ways that were impossible before. As technology has advanced so too has the amount of information that is being acquired by both private and government entities. Despite this rapid scaling of access to personal information, the law has been slow to react and protect the individual in an adequate manner.

In China, one can see how advancements in technology have provided infinite gold-mines of information. China’s government has taken a keen interest in controlling how social media works on popular platforms, such as WeChat, Baidu Tieba, and Sina Weibo, out of a belief that information being disseminated on these platforms can disrupt social order and lead to the violation of laws.

China has also enacted a policy known as “real-name registration” where users must register their personal information with the necessary provider before they can do things like post comments on forums or articles. China’s step toward erasing anonymity is done under the guise of making the community safer and holding individual’s accountable for their statements and actions. However, it also has the effect of dissuading individuals from stating contrary views to those in charge. Naturally, this creates an additional barrier for individuals’ who seek to advocate for change, but it also has a chilling effect on the ability for a community to be able to discuss issues freely and openly without fear of retribution.

Out of a desire to access a larger market, companies regularly acquiesce to rules and regulations imposed by countries such as China. While it is true that Google has rejected some of China’s more restrictive and invasive policies, they have announced that they would be returning to China. Even without American companies such as Google, local companies such as Baidu have grown tremendously and have had no issue agreeing to the terms stipulated by the Chinese government.

Often overlooked is the fact that concern for one’s privacy is not merely an issue for those who live or visit countries such as China. Governments and companies alike in western democracies have increasingly made use of the pervasiveness of technology in order to acquire as much information as they can on each individual. In the United States, people have seen the rise of the National Security Agency and its ability to invade the privacy of individual’s when the government can justify that it is necessary. However, what is more alarming is the increase in the acquisition of personal information by private companies, such as Facebook, or internet service providers, such as Comcast.

In our daily lives we are regularly giving away bits and pieces of our privacy. When we use Fitbit, the company is given access to where and when you have been somewhere. Most shocking to the public has been the realization that when we participate in social media, such as Facebook, we give away an enormous amount of data that then has the potential to be misused and abused by companies.. These issues are not new ones, in fact, Facebook has been involved in privacy violations before, but has been able to come out of each one relatively unscathed because, when it comes to technology, the public prefers convenience.

While privacy advocates have been up in arms regarding the increasingly invasive nature of governments and companies across the globe, the public has been less concerned. Traditionally, when dealing with privacy our protections were written taking into account physical invasions into our space as well as physical collecting of our data. However, the world has changed significantly since these protections were written. Nowadays, an invasion of privacy can occur out of sight and out of mind. This has made the public much more accepting of giving away their privacy because it does not noticeably affect them. Recently, thanks to scandals surrounding companies such as Cambridge Analytica and Grindr, people have become more concerned regarding the extent to which their data is being used. It is unclear as to whether this will be enough to finally force governments to act to properly protect the rights of the individual against blatant misuses of their personal information.

It is true that certain companies have taken a number of steps to better safeguard the personal information of their customers, often to the government’s annoyance, but even these companies have proven to be susceptible to the demands of the government if there is a significant financial incentive to do so. This demonstrates that it cannot be left to companies to self-regulate how they protect the data of individuals. Thus, in order to safeguard our rights, governments must act to pass legislation imposing harsher personal privacy regulations and harsher penalties for those who do not comply with these regulations. The EU has done just this when it passed the General Data Protection Regulation back in 2016. Unsurprisingly, there has already been pushback from companies about enacting the EU requirements globally.

As for governments, such as China, who are more frequently the abuser rather than the protector of rights, the public should engage not only domestically, but at an international level  in order to create change in how abusive governments are treating their citizens’ right to privacy. Even for government’s that are more receptive to public criticism, one must be vigilant as they continue to squeeze away at one’s privacy. If action is not taken at the local, national, and international levels, then the right to privacy will soon be a thing of the past as individuals are taken advantage of by both public and private entities.

Project & Publications Type: Human Rights Commentary