The Cambridge Analytica revelations have once again seen companies' collection and handling of our personal information come to the fore. It is a familiar cycle of shock and outrage, driven by a media seemingly hitherto unaware of the extent to which companies have access to our data and use it to make money. There are the same protests and petitions, the same promises to stop using the internet. And yet, people will continue to use the products they were supposed to be boycotting. They will ignore the warnings that their privacy is going to hell in a hand basket and carry on as before.
They will do so for two reasons. First, these products make life easier. They are now so integrated into our existence that for many it is impossible to imagine doing anything without them. Second, they will do so because, when it really comes down to it, very few people actually care about privacy. We think we care about privacy, we even say we do, but ultimately it is a nebulous concept around which there is much hysteria but very little real feeling. In his 1998 essay 'Imperial Bedrooms', Jonathan Franzen called privacy the ‘new American Obsession’. But as Franzen noted - and it is a point that appears to have changed little as the debate has evolved with the rise of the internet - this panic about privacy is missing one crucial ingredient: a genuinely alarmed public. And this discrepancy is being exploited.
Franzen summarizes the general feeling, arguing that: "Americans care about privacy mainly in the abstract. Sometimes a well-informed community unites to defend itself, as when Net users bombarded the White House with E-mails against the “clipper chip,” and sometimes an especially outrageous piece of news provokes a national outcry, as when the Lotus Development Corporation tried to market a CD-rom containing financial profiles of nearly half the people in the country. By and large, though, even in the face of wholesale infringements like the war on drugs, Americans remain curiously passive. I’m no exception. I read the editorials and try to get excited, but I can’t. More often than not, I find myself feeling the opposite of what the commentators want me to."
For evidence of this continued apathy, one need only look at Facebook's continued growth in the face of widespread public distrust of their ability to act as a steward of their users' data - even before the recent scandal. In a Quartz survey carried out last year, just 21% said they trusted Facebook. In a survey carried out by Reuters, 51% said they either don’t trust the platform at all or didn’t trust it very much. In Australia, a national YouGov Galaxy survey found that just 15% of the population are confident Facebook will keep their personal data secure. “If the survey was re-run now ... the level of trust in Facebook would have slumped significantly — and it was starting from a low benchmark,” YouGov Galaxy managing director David Briggs said. Yet despite these low numbers, Facebook has more users and higher profits than ever before, recent blips in share price aside.
This is because, largely, while we might not trust Facebook with our data, while we worry that our privacy is being infringed, there is little tangible harm to this infringement. Our privacy does not feel like it is being violated. We hand over our data, perhaps a little warily, in exchange for using their products. We do so rather than stump up cash, something most people find preferable. Their possession of our data then manifests itself really only in so far as it means we get more targeted ads and greater personalization, which enables us to have a more efficient and enjoyable online experience. The problem is that privacy as a concept is extremely hard to define. Many in the digital age have asked where the right to privacy extends and what exactly it protects. The most common view is that it's a 'right to be let alone' - in other words, human beings need a kind of sphere in which they're guaranteed to be free of interference or surveillance by governments, but actual laws around privacy are vague. The Constitution does not specifically mention a right to privacy at any point, although the US Supreme Court has noted in several decisions that it believes this right exists in the ‘penumbra’ of several other, specifically enumerated rights, such as the Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. As such, citizens are entitled to it under the catch-all provision of the Ninth Amendment. In the main, privacy laws really fall under the purview of other laws, such as theft, trespass, and defamation, and these are really the only ways having it invaded actually really agitates us. And, until now, Facebook has not really violated any of these. It has violated our privacy, and privacy, in so much as the public is concerned with it, is very rarely an end in and of itself.
Or at least, Facebook wants us to think this is all that has been violated. Really, they have been an accomplice in the hijacking of democracy by nefarious actors. The thing with violation of privacy is that as hard as it is to define, it is as easily solved - you build a higher wall. It is a smokescreen, a wishy-washy catch-all term that ultimately serves as a distraction for deeper underlying issues that we should be dealing with. If your neighbor spends his whole day in your garden exposing himself while staring in through your window, then building a higher fence is only a short-term solution - you are still standing meters away from a sexual deviant and you need to move or have them arrested. Facebook wants you to think it can build some higher walls and everything will be okay, you will again feel that your privacy is being maintained and carry on as normal. The social network's COO Sheryl Sandberg said, "You deserve to have your information protected — and we'll keep working to make sure you feel safe on Facebook. Your trust is at the core of our service. We know that and we will work to earn it." Founder Mark Zuckerberg claimed in a statement that, "We have a responsibility to protect your data, and if we can't then we don't deserve to serve you." The important thing to note here is that both emphasize the importance of protecting their users' data, rather than people themselves. They conflate people's data with people, and in doing they are exploiting the same mistake that the media makes when they declare outrage at privacy violations: That people are actually all that bothered about it. They are admitting failings, but only those they believe they can get away with admitting. Because to recognize the true ramifications of what has happened would ultimately be to recognize that their entire business model, their entire mission statement, is detrimental to society, and the only real fix is to shut down their operations.