Scholars, including my colleagues and me, have been raising alarms for years, arguing that surveillance activities and lack of privacy threatening those most vulnerable are ultimately a threat to all. That’s because the number of people at risk can rise when political forces identify a broader population as posing threats justifying surveillance.
The lack of action on privacy vulnerability is due in part to a failure of imagination, which frequently blinkers people who see their own position as largely safe in a social and political system.
There is, however, another reason for inattention. When considering mainstream privacy obligations and requirements, the privacy and security community has, for decades, been caught up in a debate about whether people really care about their privacy in practice, even if they value it in principle.
I’d argue that the privacy paradox–the belief that people are less motivated to protect their privacy than they claim to be–remains conventional wisdom today. This view diverts attention from taking action, including giving people tools to fully evaluate their risks. The privacy paradox is arguably more a commentary on how little people understand the implications of what’s been called surveillance capitalism or feel empowered to defend against it.
With the general public cast as indifferent, it is easy to assume that people generally don’t want or need protection, and that all groups are at equal risk. Neither is true.
All in it together?
It’s hard to talk about silver linings, but as these online risks spread to a broader population, the importance of online safety will become a mainstream concern. Online safety includes being careful about digital footprints and using anonymous browsers.
Nora McDonald is an assistant professor of information technology at the University of Cincinnati.