Every time we see a fresh example of how badly our privacy has been eroded by the same tech companies that tout a commitment to protect it, the same reactions pop up. Boycott the service, stop using their products, delete them forever and don’t look back. They’re all valid responses.
Then many of us ask ourselves: “What can we do to protect our privacy?”
Deleting accounts and giving up on offending services can be good moves. But let’s be realistic:
After all, if it’s not one tech giant with all of your data, it’ll probably be another, right?
If being overwhelmed by the scale of the problemhuge challenge that requires giant organizations — like governments and corporations — to take the threat seriously and act accordingly, rather than say they’re concerned and promising to do better in the future. Real action on climate hinges on these big players to the point that small personal measures pale in comparison.
Yes, protecting our privacy demands that we each take ownership of our data and protect it as well, but uninstalling Facebook and deleting your Instagram account won’t keep the data these and other companies have on you from being bought, sold, analyzed and aggregated.
Today it’s Facebook in the spotlight for opening its data floodgates — including by exposing private messages and phone numbers — to its clients. Tomorrow it’ll be someone else who’s been hacked, or has been harvesting location data quietly from its users, or is quietly working on a project with a country that doesn’t have the same standards around humans rights.
So where does that leave us? If uninstalling apps that spy on you and leaving data-hungry services won’t change much of anything, what can we do that makes a real difference?
Well, first, don’t discount the power of individual actions. They add up, and even small steps can mean a lot to you personally. There’s an old saying that “just because you can’t do everything doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything.” It applies just as much to internet privacy as it does to climate change or other big, thorny issues that seem like they’re out of reach to solve.
Many tech companies, especially smaller ones with more active or dedicated customers, often switch gears or walk back policy changes when their users are unhappy with them. It doesn’t hurt to let companies of any size know that you care about your privacy, and you’ll walk away if they won’t take it seriously. Don’t take it out on their customer service staff, because they don’t make the rules. But your voice can carry weight.
Earlier this year, after revelations that a political consulting firm had inappropriately harvested Facebook user data, the number of people using Facebook started to slow down and the company’s bottom line took a hit. When it announced its first quarterly earnings during that time, Facebook’s stock plunged, erasing about $120 billion in the company’s market value in less than two hours.
Next, it’s important to read up and get involved. Read those company privacy policies, or check out services like Terms of Service, Didn’t Read or TOSBack to see if they have a plain-language version you can look at. Information is your most powerful weapon, partially because so much of the language that surrounds internet privacy and what data goes where is intentionally murky and difficult to understand. If you have an idea of what information you trade when you install an app or sign up for a new account, you can decide whether that service is worth it to you.
Similarly, keep an eye on broader efforts to rein in these companies, both abroad and at home. This year, privacy advocates joined lawmakers in passing new regulations designed to protect privacy in Europe (the General Data Protection Regulation, also known as G.D.P.R.) and in California.
While the California state law isn’t as sweeping as G.D.P.R., it does set a template that advocates in other states are eager to follow, and that tech firms aren’t terribly happy about. Learning what those laws mean for you and making your voice heard either in support or in opposition to them may sound dangerously like getting involved in politics. (Spoiler: It is!) But it can be as powerful as uninstalling an app or browser extension, especially on the local or state level.
Don’t believe it? It’s worked before.
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