The Battle for Your Digital Soul

The fight for privacy is a fight for freedom

Your digital soul is distributed among thousands of humming servers in air-conditioned rooms.

Virtually everything you do online is recorded somewhere. It’s valuable stuff, and it often changes hands for money.

We exchange pieces of our digital soul for convenience. We want to easily stay in touch, we want to network, to see the latest pictures of our grandchildren, we want to look at pictures of dogs. But convenience becomes a cage built piece by piece.

We accepted the cost of convenience for a long time. We thought, “so what if Facebook knows a thing or two about me? I’ll get adverts that are more tailored. That’s no bad thing.”

But in all that time, social media companies have built vast datasets. They swallowed up rival companies, they bought and sold information about users from third party companies, they tracked where you are and when.

All that data gets aggregated. A hack in 2018 compromised some 50 million Facebook accounts, giving hackers access not only to all those people’s Facebook accounts but also third party services connected to those Facebook accounts such as Airbnb, Spotify and Tinder.

People who say, “if you don’t like Facebook, don’t use it” entirely miss the point.

The privacy intrusions of companies like Facebook affect you even if you’re not on the platform. These intrusions also affect our loved ones and dependents who do use it and, ultimately, society.

The Cambridge Analytica scandal showed how vulnerable our collective data is when it’s held in such vast digital reservoirs. The scheme was designed to direct hyper-personalised advertising that preys on fears and insecurities for political (and of course financial) gain.

Abuses of Facebook data for political purposes are rife, especially in the developing world, and the platform has been used in attempts not only to mislead people to sway elections, but also instigate pogroms.

Campaigns to persuade people to “dump Facebook” are not the answer. The big tech companies blur the boundary between private service and public utility.

Their services are enmeshed in our relationships and often our work too. It’s difficult to extract ourselves after so many years of shared memories and connections. How easy is it to give up WhatsApp, for example? Many people signed up to Instagram, WhatsApp or Facebook in the early days of its life, they did not sign up to what those services have become.

And suppose western customers do walk away from Facebook in droves, the company will continue to swallow up and exploit the personal data of billions of users in the developing world. When the western world became wise to the dangers of cigarette smoking, the tobacco industry diverted its marketing money to Asian and African markets.

Government regulation has been patchy at best, the biggest win being the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDRP) forcing the issue of transparency and accountability, but this still leaves the core of the problem unchecked.

When regulators do impose penalties on companies like Facebook, they are paid off with slivers of the vast revenues the company makes. It is reported that Facebook has earmarked €302 million for such fines in the EU alone. Mere transparency has its own problems: how many people read the small print when they check consent boxes?

The US Government and 48 states are now suing Facebook for anti-trust violations. This is related to privacy — it will make it harder for Facebook to capture as much data as it does if the government is successful — but it is not really a measure to explicitly defend the privacy of citizens.

Competition and Self-Regulation

The battle for our digital souls involves many belligerents with different motives. Sensing that people are becoming wise to online privacy, the tech market as a whole seems to be moving towards self-regulation in the form of competition.

An ongoing feud between Apple and Facebook could be a fork in the internet’s destiny with far and wide reaching consequences.

At the heart of the feud is Apple’s App Transparency Tracking (ATT) technology. This is simply a baked-in privacy measure. It informs users of Apple devices of the way third-parties intend to use their data and gives them the option to block those intended uses.

Seems fair and honest. The problem is that Facebook doesn’t really want you to know what it’s doing with your data, and it certainly doesn’t want you to hinder what it does with it. That can be the only reason Facebook is fighting the rollout of the technology, claiming that Apple’s ATT is anticompetitive and will be to the detriment of small businesses.

Apple fired back with a statement to reaffirm that, before the internet matured, respect for privacy was the norm.

“Advertising that respects privacy is not only possible, it was the standard until the growth of the Internet. Some companies that would prefer ATT is never implemented have said that this policy uniquely burdens small businesses by restricting advertising options, but in fact, the current data arms race primarily benefits big businesses with big data sets. Privacy-focused ad networks were the universal standard in advertising before the practice of unfettered data collection began over the last decade or so.”

Facebook have also indulged in “whataboutism” by pointing out Apple’s own sins and omissions. They claim Apple is protecting their customer base from every other company except themselves.

Some of those points are probably fair, but it doesn’t change the fact that Facebook doesn’t really want you to know what it’s doing with your data. Apple is merely proposing that it asks you for your consent, it will not block Facebook from collecting data by default.

Apple delayed the implementation to 2021, prompting no less than eight civil and human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, to write to Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple. The letter expresses dismay at the delay in implementing ATT and not living up to the “uncompromising commitment to security and user privacy” stated in Apple’s Human Rights Policy.

This is a strange, possibly unprecedented, move: human rights organisations cheering on a tech product feature? This is probably because, given the massive size and reach of Apple’s user base, the rollout will force a watershed in the industry as a whole. If Apple push forward with ATT, Facebook will have to change the way they treat user privacy.

Whether we like it or not, we are becoming increasingly networked. This changes what we are. Our digital fingerprints are indelible, and we’re leaving them wherever we post, like, share and follow.

The ethical issues that are raised by big tech and our privacy will become more acute as time rolls on. Our homes, workplaces and even our cars are being increasingly enmeshed in digital networks. We become increasingly dependent on the services of companies that we allow access to our data.

I’m describing our personal data as a “digital soul” because it is more than precious. Privacy as a right is a pillar of democracy, it’s what allows us to keep our personal autonomy and our power as citizens.

The battle for your digital soul is a battle that is shaping the future of humanity. Put your helmet on and join the fight.

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