Dear Sir or Madam,
America has fought hard to be “the land of the free, and the home of the brave”, to quote the national anthem. But today we live in a world where there are more potent threats to our freedom than ever before. If we take no action to regulate the collection of our personal data now, we will lose our privacy, and all of the freedoms associated with it.
The internet is an integral part of the lives of most Americans today, and for good reason. It is an extremely useful and powerful tool, which liberates information and allows for easy long distance communication. But it is also an extremely powerful tool for invading the privacy of anyone who uses it. The existing regulations on internet surveillance and personal data collection are ambiguous and do not do enough to protect the privacy of the citizens whose personal information is being recorded.
It is crucial that this issue is addressed as soon as possible, because the current system is in violation of the rights of the American people. The purpose of the second amendment was to allow the people to defend their own rights and their nation. But what is the point of allowing the public to be armed with guns to defend their freedom if they do not understand what freedom is? And how can they know what freedom is when they live in a world where doing so much as asking a “suspicious” question on the internet makes them a target for unwarranted examination of their personal lives? American citizens expect to be treated as innocent until proven guilty in this country, and if being guilty of being curious or behaving “abnormally” is enough of a crime to justify surveillance and other violations of privacy, then we have entirely failed to protect the ideology of our nation from corruption. I understand that surveillance is a powerful tool for maintaining national security, and that under some circumstances it is necessary. This may seem especially true in light of the terrorist attacks of 2001, but if we are so afraid that we dismiss one of the most basic principles of the United States’ justice system, then isn’t it fair to say that they are succeeding? Not only is this a basic principle of our justice system, but also article eleven of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights created by the UN. For a country that is a permanent member of the UN security council, helped found the organization, and provides roughly a quarter of its budget to blatantly contradict the Universal Declaration of human rights sends the message that this country is hypocritical and untrustworthy.
However, the government is not the only organization who is abusing big data. Stores such as Target, Kroger, and Macy’s, among others, are storing the purchase history of all of their customers. They use this data to send out personalized advertisements to their customers, which may seem innocuous until you consider the fact that small businesses don’t have the same enormous budgets to buy software and hire statisticians. This means they can be more easily outcompeted. More problematically, retail giants are using this personal data to take in extra profits by selling it to data brokers. A data broker is an entity which collects, buys, and sells personal information (Boutin, 2016). The danger here is that they can sell it to anyone- from insurance companies who can use it to discriminate against high-risk customers, to scam artists and terrorists, who can use it to find targets. The unregulated accumulation of personal data is in no one’s best interest, and the government, which is supposed to protect the people, needs to step in. The Data Broker Accountability and Transparency Act of 2016 would give individuals the right to know what personal information is being sold, and opt out of the sale of their personal lives, as well as change any inaccuracies. Under the current policy, citizens have no control or even access to the personal data that is collected from them, so if they end up being denied an insurance policy or a bank loan from an institution who bought their personal data, they do not know if it’s because they’ve been “blacklisted”. By “blacklisted”, I mean that certain subtle behaviors and purchase habits have been shown to correlate with health and financial stability, and if a person’s behavior (as represented by big data) does not say good things about their future, it can be very damaging to their ability to acquire certain financial or health services. It could be arguable that the algorithms that make those judgments are backed up by real facts and trends, but studies have found that only about 50% of the data that brokers sell is accurate (Boutin, 2016). If all of the data is faulty to begin with, what does that say about the effectiveness of the algorithms? Real Americans being blacklisted because of fake data is unethical and unjustifiable.
The question of how big data should be managed extends beyond just ethical implications, however. There are psychological consequences to the extinction of privacy. While we are being observed by others, we actively try to conform to social norms for our gender, race, and age, among other things. When we do not conform to those standards, we run the risk of social rejection or stigmatization. This means that while we are not free to express all facets of our personality and pursue projects that are truly important to us while others are present. Now imagine that even when we’re physically alone, there are still people who know where we are, what we’ve been reading and writing, what our habits are, our tastes and far more. Is there such thing as a safe space to express ourselves freely in that world? What might we be loosing in terms of creativity and innovation because people never get a break from conformity? And not only do these societal pressures stifle creativity, they can also create a state of chronic stress, which in turn leads to more mental illness and sometimes even physical illness (Jourard, 1966). As bizarre as it may sound, the freedom being destroyed here could have as significant of an impact on the well being of millions of Americans as a proper exercise routine.
Dystopian science fiction stories, such as George Orwell’s 1984, have described the dangers of the complete deprivation of privacy. While these stories may seem very distant from the actual world we live in, they were based off of it and are intended to send messages about the way we live our lives. Let us not sacrifice some of our most valuable freedoms in exchange for a short term sense of security when we have the means to see how that situation may turn out.
Boutin, P. (2016, May 30). The Secretive World Of Selling Data About You. Retrieved October 27, 2016, from http://www.newsweek.com/secretive-world-selling-data-about-you-464789
Jourard, S. M. (1966). Some Psychological Aspects of Privacy. Law and Contemporary Problems, 31(2), 307. doi:10.2307/1190673