The Philosopher Carissa Véliz explains the consequences in your daily life and in society in general of the lack of privacy
They know practically everything about you.
Before you even get out of bed to turn off your cell phone alarm, a lot of organizations already know what time you’re getting up, where you’ve slept, and even with whom.
And when you wake up and pick up your mobile phone, they will still know many more private details about you: from the music you play, they will deduce, for example, your mood.
Even turning on the washing machine or making coffee can reveal personal information.
Your tastes, your hobbies, your habits, your relationships , your fears, your medical issues….
Virtually everything we do is spied on and controlled by companies who then share all that personal information with each other and with numerous governments.
It’s not just about them selling your personal data, but about the immense power that this gives them to influence you.
This is what “Privacy Is Power” is about, the book just published by the Mexican-Spanish philosopher Carissa Véliz , a professor at the University of Oxford, specifically at the new Institute of Ethics and Artificial Intelligence.
He arrived there after studying Philosophy at the University of Salamanca and the University of Toronto, after completing his master’s degree in New York and his doctorate at Oxford.
Born in Mexico into a Spanish family that had to leave Spain after the civil war and found refuge in that country, Véliz became interested in privacy when she began to investigate the history of her relatives in archives in Spain .
“It made me wonder if I had the right to know what my grandparents hadn’t told me about the Spanish civil war,” he explains.
Today she is an expert in privacy and in the immense power that our personal data gives companies and governments.
Why is privacy important?
Privacy is important because the lack of it gives others power over us.
When other people know too much about us they can interfere in our lives.
Privacy protects us from abuses of power.
For example, it protects us against unfair discrimination.
If your boss does not know what religion you profess, he cannot discriminate against you.
Privacy is like the bandage that covers the eyes of justice so that the system treats us with equality and impartiality.
Right now we are not being treated as equals: we do not see the same content online, we are not offered the same opportunities, we often do not pay the same price for the same products.
If we are treated according to our data (if we are women or men, skinny or fat, rich or poor) we are not treated as equal citizens.
Privacy is power.
If we give our data to companies, let’s not be surprised that the rich are the ones who write the rules of our society.
If we give governments too much data, let us not be surprised that they control us.
For democracy to be strong, citizens have to be in control of the data. Therefore privacy is a political concern and not just an individual one.
What data is collected from us through electronic devices? Can you give us some examples?
Everything you can imagine, and a little more.
Who are your friends and your family, where do you live, where do you work, who do you sleep with, if you are being unfaithful to your partner, your sexual orientation, your political opinions, what car you have, how much money you make.
Also how much do you spend, if you have debts, if you have been the victim or the author of a crime, what do you eat, how much do you drink, if you smoke, what do you buy, if you have any illness, what worries you, what time do you go to sleep and what time to wake up, how do you drive, what are you looking for on the internet, what catches your attention, what is your mood.
Your car, for example, if it is ‘smart’, is attentive to what music you like and your seat is even measuring your weight.
And what use is made of this data and by whom?
All that information is sold to the highest bidder.
Data brokers compile a dossier on all internet users and sell them.
Who buys them?
Marketing companies, insurance companies, banks, potential employers, even governments, and in some cases, criminals who want to steal your identity.
What harm can it cause that some of our personal data is known?
Damages can be both individual (someone stealing your credit card number and buying something with it, or someone stealing your identity and committing crimes on your behalf), to collective damages (hacking our democracy, such as Cambridge Analytica tried it, sending personalized propaganda, encouraging some people to vote and discouraging others, or sending fake news to confuse the population and generate mistrust)
In extreme cases, lack of privacy kills: from suicides as a result of public humiliation (as happened last year in Spain) to authoritarian regimes that use personal data to persecute certain groups (China uses biometric and personal data to persecute the Uyghurs)
During World War II, for example, the Nazis visited public records to search for Jews.
In France, where the census did not collect information on religion for privacy reasons, they only found and killed 25% of the Jewish population.
In the Netherlands, where very detailed records of domicile and religion existed, around 75% of the Jewish population were found and murdered.
The difference is hundreds of thousands of people.
As this information did not exist in France, the Nazis had entrusted the task of collecting data on religion to René Carmille, Comptroller General of the French Army.
Carmille promised they would use Hollerith machines, which worked with IBM punch cards, to do a census.
What the Nazis didn’t know was that Carmille was one of the most important people within the French Resistance.
He reprogrammed the machines so that they did not pierce column 11, where citizens indicated their religion.
By not collecting that information, Carmille saved hundreds of thousands of lives.
Seen this way, the lack of privacy has (indirectly) caused the death of more people than terrorism.
In my book I argue that you have to think of personal data as if it were a toxic substance, because in a sense it is.
They are poisoning our lives, as individuals and as societies.
Personal data must be regulated just as we regulate other toxic substances such as asbestos.
Can the information that is collected about us be used to discriminate against some people or for other evil purposes?
Of course. Imagine that a company wants to hire someone. You have two candidates who are equally competent.
The company buys the data on both candidates and realizes that one of them professes a religion or supports a political party that is contrary to the beliefs of the head of the company.
Or you learn that a candidate has a health problem that may be serious in the future, or that a candidate has young children.
The company can hire the candidate who has the right religion, or who supports the political party that the company supports, or it can prefer the healthier candidate, or who has no family to distract him.
Discrimination is illegal, but who is to know?
You may have been a victim of discrimination and may never find out.
As a society, why is it important that we maintain our privacy?
Because without privacy there is no guarantee of equality, or justice, or freedom, or democracy.
Mass surveillance is incompatible with the rule of law.
The architecture of surveillance is perfect for us to slip into a society of control or with authoritarian tendencies.
Freedom of thought cannot be guaranteed when everything we read is being watched.
Confidentiality between lawyers and clients, or doctors and patients, cannot be guaranteed when everything we say becomes data that is collected, analyzed, and sold.
Lack of privacy threatens our autonomy, our ability to govern ourselves, as individuals and as citizens.
How can there be trust between citizens, or healthy political debates, if there are foreign actors wanting to hack into our psychology, using data about our fears to incite conflict between us?
Mark Zuckerberg, president and founder of Facebook declared in 2010 that “the age of privacy is over.” Is that so? Do we have to resign ourselves to growing companies and g overnments know more of our personal lives?
Zuckerberg had and still has a financial interest in people believing that privacy is a thing of the past.
But privacy is more relevant than ever.
You try to ask a stranger to give you their email password: no one is going to give it to you. Privacy is not dead. Quite the opposite.
This is just the beginning of the fight for our privacy online.
Zuckerberg himself, realizing that people are increasingly concerned about their privacy, changed the tune of his advertising and asserted last year that the future is private.
No, we must not resign ourselves. We must fight for our privacy, because the stakes are high. Our way of life is at stake. Our future and the future of our children.
Even in the most capitalistic societies we agree that certain things must be off the market.
For example, if we put the votes up for sale, we erode democracy.
If we sell the result of football matches, we ruin the sport.
You have to add personal data to that list of things that should not be for sale.
Letting the data vultures profit from learning about our vulnerabilities is outrageous.
How can you combat the loss of privacy individually? Can you give us some practical advice?
Stop using Google; use DuckDuckGo. Stop using WhatsApp; use Signal.
Do not give your personal data to those who do not need them.
If a company asks for your email and doesn’t need it, give it a fake one, just as you would give a fake phone to someone heavy who doesn’t take “no” for an answer.
Do not violate the privacy of others: do not post photos or messages of someone without their consent, and do not share any images or videos that violate someone’s privacy.
Don’t be an accessory to mass surveillance.
Avoid buying objects that connect to the internet if it is not necessary.
Appliances like washing machines and kettles work best if they don’t connect to the internet, and they can’t be hacked.
Learn more about the subject of privacy. Read about it, and comment on it.
Demand that companies and your political representatives protect your privacy.
Is having privacy a right? And if it is, who should guarantee and protect it?
Yes, privacy is a human right, it is both a legal and a moral right.
It is the duty of both governments and citizens to protect that right, just as your right to life is protected by both the state and the people around you.
And why is the right to privacy not protected?
Privacy is not being sufficiently protected for financial reasons, because selling data is profitable.
That is why I argue in my book “Privacy Is Power”, I argue that we have to end the data economy.
As long as the data is lucrative, there will be abuse.
Some people may think it’s radical to make a call to end the data economy.
But the radical thing is to have a business model that depends on the massive and systematic violation of our rights.
There are those who say that they do not care that companies and governments have access to their private and personal data, that they have nothing to hide … What would you say to those people?
That you have a lot to hide and fear, unless you are an exhibitionist with masochistic desires to suffer identity theft, discrimination, unemployment, public humiliation and totalitarianism, among other possible risks.
Another thing is that you do not know what you have to hide.
You may have a disease that is yet to manifest, but which, when the data vultures find out (and they may find out before you), will count against you.
One problem with privacy is that we often don’t realize how important it is until we lose it and suffer the consequences.
And then it is too late.
What ethical implications are there behind the loss of privacy we suffer?
Perhaps most important, states and data trading companies are supporting a deeply immoral economic system, because it depends on the systematic violation of our right to privacy.
Can our personal data be used politically? Can Lack of Privacy Be a Threat to Democracy?
Definitely. It has already happened with Cambridge Analytica, which interfered in the Brexit referendum and the US elections in which Trump won.
The firm used personal data to try to convince those citizens who would vote for Hillary Clinton that voting was not worth it, for example.
Personalized content is toxic and must be banned.
Nobody has direct access to reality: we know (or think we know) what is happening in the world through our screens.
If the information that each one receives is diametrically different from that received by his neighbor, there is no way to understand each other and have a rational discussion.
Each will think that the other is crazy.
But we are not crazy, we are simply being exposed to images of the world so different that they are not compatible.
When the content we see is individual, the public sphere is fragmented into individual realities, informational ghettos.
Are we still in time to regain our privacy?
We are on time. We can prohibit the data economy, force the data vultures to erase our sensitive information, impose fiduciary duties on anyone who handles our data (so that our data can only be used for us and never against us, just like Doctors can only use what they know to benefit us and never harm us), improve our cybersecurity standards, and much more.
We are going through a process of civilization similar to what we went through in the pre-digital context.
We managed to turn the Wild West into a habitable place.
Thanks to regulation, we can trust that the food sold in the supermarket is (relatively) edible, that the cars we drive are (relatively) safe, that the water we drink is clean enough.
In the future we will have put the appropriate measures to trust that we can use technology without it using us.
Something important to keep in mind is that technology can work perfectly well without trading with our data.
Selling data is just a business model. We can finance technology in other ways.
Why did you become interested in the subject of privacy?
My interest in privacy began as a personal matter.
I was researching my family’s history in the archives of the civil war in Spain.
Discovering certain things that I did not know about my grandparents made me wonder if I had the right to know what they had not told me, and if I had the right to write about it.
Being a philosopher, I looked for answers in my discipline, but they did not satisfy me.
That same summer when I visited the archives with my mother, Snowden revealed that the entire world was being monitored electronically by intelligence agencies.
That shocked me. So I started to investigate privacy more seriously.
The more I read about it, the more the state of our privacy alarmed me.
The more history I read, the more I realized that the data economy is absolute insanity, that it is extremely dangerous to have so much poorly protected population data.
Selling them to whoever wants to buy them is putting the population at constant risk.
Personal data often ends up being abused, sooner or later.
They are a time bomb.