The third episode of our privacy podcast, No Place to Hide, goes right to a pretty dark place. When they take away our privacy, what are they really taking away? Our humanity.
Menny Barzily, CTO of the Interdisciplinary Cyber Research Center at Tel-Aviv University, offered the most profound analysis. He put it like this:
“So the future of AI and privacy is to me very, very dark. Because the question is, who are you? Are you the sum of your thoughts or the sum of your decisions or the sum of your emotions? What if you will discover that all of those things can be easily changed through technology?
“Again, and again, we witness cases where companies and other entities prove that by using technologies together with sophisticated enough algorithms, you can change the way people think. You can change the way people, feel. And you can change the way people view the world. And now you have a system that is able to learn by itself. You give it data and you connect it to platforms, again, like Facebook, Google, and others that allow you, allow a third party like the system to show us information and check what does this information make us do? What kind of a decision we’re making when given this information.
“And when you connect those new types of algorithms, what you get is a system that will be able to develop algorithms that will allow us to change the way you think and the way you feel with a very high level of, accuracy.”
Alia Tavakoilian and I spent six months talking to every privacy expert we could find, and we were left with the stark feeling that privacy is about much more than keeping your credit card number a secret. Privacy is about preserving the essence of who you are. And, it’s about a lot of other things.
“A strange question at this point: What is privacy?” I asked Alia in the podcast. “I have a long list from all our guests. Privacy is: Safety. Freedom to think. Free will. Protects minorities. Ability to be creative. Freedom from being watched. It’s a statute of limitations on mistakes. It’s freedom from Big Brother. It’s the cause of the American Revolution. And, as Menny points out, it’s really the essence of who you are.
So, it’s only natural that our conversation would turn to pending privacy legislation in Congress. Plenty of folks — even tech companies — agree that *something* needs to be done. But what? Some consumer advocates are worried that Congress, if it doesn’t act with wisdom and care, could make things worse, not better.
“And the first thing the companies want is a privacy law, quote unquote, privacy law, that says everything you companies are doing, keep doing it. Don’t ever change,” warns Ed Mierzwinski, a consumer advocate at the Public Interest Research Group. “They want to legalize everything they’re doing without giving consumers any new rights. And those rights that we want, uh, we want the right to sue companies that harm our privacy. That’s off the table for the companies. But the most important thing, as somebody that’s been doing this work at both the state and the national level, all the good ideas I’ve ever seen, come from the states. That’s why industry wants to preempt the right of state governments to pass stronger laws. Because all the good ideas come from state governments. Industry doesn’t want any new good ideas. They want to perpetuate their right to run roughshod over Americans, over our privacy. Disrespect everything we do. And so preemption, and the right to sue companies, Congress is going to, if the industry has its way, Congress is going to pass a law that says, you can keep doing everything you’re doing consumers don’t have any right to sue you.”
What should Congress do? What should you do? For that, you’ll need to listen to the podcast.