The Future of Privacy

The 21st century brought with itself a myriad of technological advancements that very few would have been able to predict. Thinking of when I was just a kid in the early 2000s, I would remain astonished after playing simple games on a bulky, thick computer. It seems like so long ago, yet less than 20 years have passed. The speed with which technology has progressed has increased dramatically, and the slope looks rather exponential, with no end in near sight. How will this end, if at all? Will humanity ever reach a limit to technology? While these are profound questions, with materialistic as well as philosophical arguments tied to them, they stand in the far future.

We’re now already in a state where innovation is so entrenched with society that its intersection with philosophy and morality has been already reached. In fact, ethics are now becoming one of the first steps to determine how technology is adopted in society, with examples spanning from the use of autonomous weapons, to self-driving cars, to the meaning of privacy in a data-driven world. As a matter of fact, the latter is one of the most controversial issues of the modern world, setting the stage for international disputes between governments and some of the biggest corporations including Google and Facebook. So, what is privacy?

We can define privacy as the legal right to possess information that isn’t shared with anybody else. This definition has a few important parts to it. I think it’s important to emphasize the “right” aspect because infringing privacy causes a violation to someone’s life to a degree which our modern, Western society has considered crucial. It should be legal because its importance is worth the government’s involvement to punish its perpetrators. Finally, it’s a form of independence that is always in relation to others, where the subject aims at carrying their actions without any outside interference. When someone wants privacy, they want to have the ability to conduct any sort of activity without any type of surveillance applied to them. This can range from having privacy in one’s own home from the neighbors, but also privacy from other family members or roommates. Privacy can be desired in public washrooms, in libraries, and more abstractly, on the web. Precisely because of the abstract nature of the web, privacy has only recently become a serious issue; we now can’t see if we’re being watched, if what we’re doing is tracked elsewhere, and what is being done with that information.

Privacy, and lack of, is so present in the everyday life that few actions are carried out without it being at play. Even something as simple as going to the grocery store can infringe our privacy. Supermarkets may have camera systems set up that track customers and gather data about them. With the footage collected, machine learning systems can be trained to detect patterns based on the type of customer and their behavior in the store, which can further be used to exploit those patterns and persuade people to make more purchases. Schemes similar to this already exist in stores, where items are positioned strategically to increase their chance of being bought, yet adding surveillance systems changes the whole game. People are now being watched, and that invades their privacy, for how small and irrelevant it may initially seem. Due to such impact, it can be argued that privacy is on the same plane of importance as freedom, where the topic is just tackled from a different angle. Freedom deals with giving people the right to live their life according to their own desires (always within laws uphold by society), and privacy is one of those fundamental desires, which needs to be respected if wished.

Given privacy is so important, why are the world’s top corporations ignoring it like one ignores their growing pile of laundry? The one-word answer: data. Our world now revolves around information, and information is what makes the world spin. Society has developed with such close ties to technology that it’s now practically impossible to live “off the grid”. Both governments and corporations all over strive to learn as much as possible about their citizens and users respectively, and this is a double edge sword.

I like to be an optimist, and I want to believe all this aggregation of data, while inevitable, can be used for good reasons to improve the quality of life, reduce poverty and ameliorate humanity as a whole. At the same time, there are one too many instances where surveillance as a form of data-gathering tool has gone south very quickly, such as with the Uighur situation in China, to name one. Such massive institutions want our data so they can run the world based on their agenda, and it is up to the people, us, to help drive these massive bodies of power in a direction that allows people and data to peacefully coexist.

Large companies have heavily invested in finding methods to convince users to sign terms of agreement without even actually giving any tangible information to what the users are agreeing to. This is not quite okay. There is no justification to allow our personal information to be taken from us without our full consent, and to this, better methods of conveying what is currently walls of text need to be implemented. If something as simple as agreeing to one’s use of data can’t get improved, I don’t see much hope for privacy in the future. These are after all delicate times, especially during the Covid pandemic, where for the greater good everyone needs to sacrifice a little bit of privacy and freedom by wearing masks and getting vaccinated.

The way that I personally see it is that greater security and benefits in society usually come with a reduction in freedom and privacy. Humans started out as independent beings, free to do whatever they wanted, yet risking the miseries of famine, cold and even death. Now we’ve come to a reality where in the developed world those are not issues anymore. Yet it came at a cost. For example, using Google Maps is an amazing tool to get around, helping same time on traffic and getting kids to school on time, while at the same time it requires people to give their location to the almighty Google. So, is it a worthwhile trade? I dare to say so.

Perhaps one of the core problems with privacy is the lack of a strong entity to tell us what is right and what is wrong, and to then be able to enforce it. I would like to entertain the thought that humanity will one day live with the support of AI, engrained in institutions to help us make better decisions. We already rely on algorithms to fly our planes, control building chains and process transactions safely. While dealing with humans is of course a more complex challenge to tackle, it will merely consist of just adding a few nodes to a neural network… Jokes aside, I believe human behavior will one day be represented through a vast, interconnected datasheet, and once we get to that point, I don’t see why it wouldn’t be possible to train AI models to learn our behavior so as to help us make better decisions. I am well aware of dystopian realities where algorithms take over humanity, for which I am a strong advocate of educating society before raising technology. Regardless, I still believe the rise of AI to be inevitable due to our human nature which has progress as its main driver. It’s not just a “nice to have”; we need progress to go forwards as a species.

Given our strong ties to data, privacy will always be a controversial topic of discussion. People are tied to wanting their freedom and to living without any outside intrusion, but at the same time they want all the benefits that come from our modern systems: a smooth web experience (often with cookies), a quick way to get to places (giving up location), or a safe hospital for all patients (done through security cameras). Social media is another big part in privacy, due to the immense amount of time totaled by people all over the world.

Such platforms have the capacity to track an unimaginable amount of human traits from relatively simple characteristics such as how much time is spent on a page, what kind of content is liked and a few of the user’s basic characteristics. All this in fact points to real data farms, where the information retrieved is currently used primarily for targeted ads, but someday it may influence someone’s credit approval, or help find a romantic partner, or even determine how prone they are to certain diseases. The world of data is still very hard to understand, but there are nevertheless a vast number of unexplored patterns which can potentially teach us so much more about ourselves which we would never learn otherwise.

For these reasons, I believe that ultimately privacy, as we know it today, will cease to exist. People will give more and more of their information to the major institutions in the world, and in exchange they’re going to receive more and more benefits. At least that’s how I want to envision the future. There are of course many risks with such implementations, from the misuse of the technology for nefarious purposes, to the feeling of complete removal of free will; if we have algorithms suggesting which school to go to, what sports to play, which tv shows to watch (already exists), and who to marry…who will really be making the decisions? Will we really feel comfortable accepting an algorithm telling us that with 93% chance we’re going to fall in love with person A, but person B can only make us happy with 74% probability? We’ve already done it with recommendations to movies and restaurants, so who’s to say we won’t like it for other aspects of life?

The rise of AI is a scary, yet very tangible, reality. It’s inevitable, and it will completely revolutionize how humans use data, and how humans are used for data. For it to be successful, we all need to work together to ensure humanity is put at the forefront of all innovation, through education, research and studies tailored at better understanding ourselves, and the world we live in. In the end, may we like it or not, the distinction between robot and human may cease to exist.

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