There is a curious trend afoot these days. As profits among tech’s biggest players have risen, so too have the number of breaches and hacks. Their trajectories nearly mirror each other: up, and to the right.
This is no coincidence, of course. User data, that digital treasure craved by hackers and businesses alike, is wildly lucrative. Big tech is using our data in privacy-invasive ways to source targeted ads, selling precise user profiles to advertisers at exorbitant rates in a way that allows them to discriminate against users based on where they live or who they are. In addition, companies are using our images to train biased facial recognition systems, which tie into predictive policing and can unjustly put people in jail. For hackers, data can be held ransom or manipulated for financial gain. For users? These days most of our online data is sold, manipulated, stolen, or in many cases all of the above. Often we’re left with annoying ads that follow us around or worse, our data exposed on the open web or used in malicious ways without our approval. There certainly aren’t any profits coming our way.
In this all-digital age, we often forget all that data is actually ours. This precious online data—banking information, photos, what we search for, what we buy—is created by and unique to each of us. Without us online, this entire ecosystem does not exist. Big Tech’s profits would tumble, as would the number of data breaches. It’s concerning then that we users hold the keys to a door we can’t truly access.
This is the terrifying state of online privacy in 2021. We’re at a tipping point in history. Waiting for foolproof legislation or big tech companies to suddenly have a change of heart will not work. Meanwhile, hacks, breaches, and rampant misuse of our data are reaching catastrophic levels. We have a decision to make: We can either take collective action to regain control of our online privacy, or we can continue down our current path of least resistance and lose it for good.
The cascade of events that have led to this privacy tipping point stretches back millennia. Before the development of modern technology, the original privacy violators were largely governments and politicians. In ancient Rome, top political players built their own surveillance networks of cohorts that would alert them to the schemes of their rivals. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church had its own powerful surveillance network to track and crack down on hearsay. In the late 18th century, the French Revolution saw half a million French nobles targeted by the new government’s “committees of surveillance,” who arrested those considered suspicious. And in the 1930s, IBM, perhaps the first “big tech” company, helped facilitate the Nazis’ genocide through the generation and tabulation of punch cards on national census data.
The dawn of the digital age in the 1990s saw the swift rise of tech companies whose shiny new offerings came at a hefty price: our data. In contrast to the authoritarian surveillance practices employed by history’s governments, tech companies originally positioned their relationship with users as mutually beneficial. Their products and services were mostly free, which users gobbled up, which quickly led to the massive growth and user bases tech companies craved. We didn’t think too much about it.
But what appeared to be a genuine and transparent relationship with Big Tech turned out to be anything but. A decade or so later we would learn that we’d been paying them since day one with our behavioral data—lucrative information about how we move around the internet and interact with digital services—and had already lost our privacy. The price we pay for their wares is not in dollars and cents, but in our data, our privacy, and our freedom, sold by Big Tech to the highest ad bidder.
Big Tech has thus asked more and more from users over the years, and most of us have been giving them our most valuable currency (our data) with little or no thought. We don’t read privacy policies, we fail to use the myriad privacy tools on the market, and the most common password we use to protect ourselves is most often varying lengths of the numbers 1 through 10. The result: Far too much of our personal data sits outside of our control and in the hands of those who sell it, manipulate it, or steal it for profit.
Consumers, you must take matters into your own hands. Legislation and hoping for a change of heart will not tip online privacy rights back into your favor. Neither will sitting idly by, either unmotivated or unaware of the assault taking place every second we’re online.
We are at a critical tipping point in time. We know what happens with our data, we know the consequences, and we have the resources and tools to wrest back control of what is rightfully ours. In this most critical year, we can take two paths: One is easy and familiar but devastatingly costly. The other is harder but leads to true freedom and choice.
Which one will you choose?
For a great list of tools to help you take back control of your privacy, check out PrivacyTools.io.
Robert E.G. Beens is the cofounder and CEO of Startpage and a recognized privacy expert and advocate.