Over the years, we’ve not hesitated to criticize the abysmal state of privacy in the United States.
And you don’t need to take our word for it – as we observed in this missive, no less an authority than the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) confirmed what we’ve long known: that Uncle Sam uses the mammoth amount of data captured as we go about our everyday lives to spy on us.
In the vast majority of cases, Big Brother doesn’t actually collect the data it uses to surveil us. Instead, it buys the data from a network of data brokers and information resellers who profit from a business model that’s been dubbed “surveillance capitalism.”
And the range of what ODNI reports buying is staggering: everything from records of your Google searches to the data collected by your vehicle as you drive it.
At the same time, since there’s no federal legislation that prohibits the surveillance capitalists from collecting and reselling this data, the only protection we have is a legal concept called the “expectation of privacy.”
But as we pointed out in this article, in reality, our expectation of privacy in terms of surveillance capitalism is virtually zero. The scant protections federal law gives us from government spying simply don’t apply when the data is scooped up by private companies and then sold to Big Brother (or anyone else).
We’d be remiss if we didn’t observe that we receive significant benefits from the companies profiting from surveillance capitalism. The ability to make an online search gives us instant access to data that we could have found only with an exhaustive effort two decades ago if we could have found it at all. And the ability to chat instantaneously with someone from the other side of the world still seems almost miraculous.
What’s more, in many cases, we don’t pay for these services. They’re given to us free, in return for our data. This phenomenon has led to a popular meme: “When an online service is free, you are not the customer; you are the product.” Another way of looking at it is that we are paying for these services not with our money, but with our data.
We’ve long espoused a fundamental realignment in terms of ownership of our data: to recognize that every individual has an ownership right to their own data, including data held by credit bureaus, data aggregators, and the government.
Ownership of your data would give you the right, but not the obligation, to share it with others. It also would give you a way to profit personally from surveillance capitalism. If you owned your own data, you’d be paid a tiny royalty every time someone accessed it or exchanged it. You could also restrict your data flow if you chose.
We recognize that the companies profiting from unfettered surveillance capitalism are unlikely to favor this model. And we also recognize that police and intelligence agencies wouldn’t like it, either. But police and intelligence agencies already have the ability to obtain secret warrants to examine our electronic records.
There’s also another model we could follow – one suggested by Shelly Palmer, a professor at Syracuse University’s School of Public Communications. In Palmer’s view, we are the –
unpaid workforce … whose labor (behaviors) generates raw data which is used in the manufacture of digital products. These digital products, such as interactive advertisements, generate hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue for the organizations we work for.
Palmer postulates the formation of a union that he calls the American Federation of Users and Data Generators. If enough Americans agreed to have the union represent their digital interests, it could approach the tech giants and begin a collective bargaining process over usage, ownership, and control over our data.
It won’t be easy persuading the tech giants to go along with this plan. But the advantage of it is that it doesn’t depend on Congress, which is bought and paid for by the surveillance capitalists, to act against surveillance capitalism. If enough people are fed up with these practices, we can do it ourselves.