By now, we’ve all heard the cliché:
“If you aren’t paying for the product, you are the product.”
And over the better part of the past two decades, we’ve grown so accustomed to not paying for most digital goods that we were mostly fine with being the product.
That is, until we - the uninitiated - began to realize that data is actually the most valuable resource in today’s economy. A resource that was making billions upon billions in profits for those already in the know.
And it wasn’t just data – It was our data that helped push the valuations of Google, Facebook, and their ilk into the stratosphere. All the while, we gobbled up their “free” products without a care in the world and unwittingly let their personalization algorithms shape our tastes, our political views, and even our democracies.
Now, after a slew of privacy scandals and Big Tech exposés, we (sort of) know that our data is being collected pretty much at every point of our interaction with tech. As an example, just by using “free” public Wi-Fi, we’re giving away our location, traffic data, and contact details. Not to mention the hundreds of trackers we get injected with whenever we visit a website. It seems that when it comes to using “free” products, there’s zero room for privacy. Cybernews team investigates why data is now a luxury.
So, if most of us have to contend with giving up our data with every step we take online, who doesn’t? Well, it’s those who have the money, time, or know-how to pay for their privacy.
And these days, privacy doesn’t come that cheap: just to cover your basic everyday digital needs, you’ll have to shell out for a premium private email account, a cloud encryption service, and a paid VPN subscription.
Want to use your paid internet connection without being tracked by your Internet service provider? Pay up to $744 a year to opt out. Want a phone that’s not a surveillance platform in disguise? Better buy an iPhone. Surprise, surprise: the freedom to browse the web privately isn’t as free as some of us were led to believe.
But what about those of us who can’t afford to pay to keep our data private? Is privacy on its way to becoming a privilege of the wealthy? Is the web being transformed into a global surveillance platform?
To quote George R.R. Martin, “Well…yes. And no. And yes. And no. And yes. And no. And yes.”
At first glance, the future looks unbelievably bleak. With IoT devices like smart speakers, cameras, and doorbells finding their way to more and more homes, it seems that soon there will be no place left to hide from every last bit of our data being recorded and sent to third parties not only by digital services, but by gadgets as well.
With hundreds of devices, thousands of services, and billions of websites sucking out people’s data, privacy has unequivocally become a luxury good, available only to those with money and/or expertise to attain it. Or has it?
Is it really all doom and gloom? Are we destined to live in a Black Mirror-esque corporate (or tyrannical) surveillance dystopia? Well, not quite. It turns out that there’s some light at the end of the tunnel, after all.
Despite all the apocalyptic doomsaying above, there’s some uplifting news for the privacy poor.
For example, the fact that 2019 was something of a landmark year for privacy. With public discourse turning against the wild west approach to data gathering, and with regulations like the GDPR coming into force in the EU, both lawmakers and corporations around the world are finally beginning to come to terms with the necessity of stronger consumer data protection.
While it remains to be seen if 2020 will be the year when users collectively (and effectively) stand up against Big Data, the enactment of California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) and India’s Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB) are much needed steps on the road to a global privacy protection framework.
In the face of imminent regulation, the digital industry should (hopefully) take note of the potential privacy sea change and reinvent its approach to personal data. Privacy is already becoming a selling point for many, and even non-predatory free services like DuckDuckGo are beginning to get noticed by users at large, proving the business model to be a viable option. It might only be a matter of time before privacy-hostile practices become a losing strategy for data vampires like Google and Facebook.
Let’s just hope it’s sooner rather than later.
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