The Future of Privacy and Communication 

3 minute read 

The relatively recent arrival of online communication means that many issues are yet to be resolved, including the impact on personal privacy. Massive shifts have taken place over a short amount of time, and there is no useful historical parallel to compare with the modern era. There is bound to be further change, trial and error, but we currently find ourselves in a state of unstable equilibrium, with a handful of dominant companies trying to manage on the one hand their commercial imperative to make money from our data, against on the other hand trying not to cause us too much offence. This hegemony cannot persist in its current form.

For companies looking to maximize profits, accessing all communications data is, of course, the ideal outcome. But this comes at the expense of customers’ privacy. How much people care about their privacy is difficult to tell. A good proportion of the population appears to be apathetic, but there are also plenty of people who feel strongly that things need to change. This skepticism towards data-intrusive businesses appears to be growing and slowly but surely heading into the mainstream. Ruby Zefo, Chief Privacy Officer at Uber, states “what consumers want is simply more transparency and control over their data, because it’s very hard to understand what’s happening right now.”

The Growing Dilemma of Government and Company Intrusion

Once example of how data-collection might impact policing and justice in the future is the case of Timothy Carpenter, a man convicted of armed robbery through the use of location data on his phone. The paradox of stopping a crime through what, in some people’s eyes, is a borderline criminal act has the potential to seed further mistrust in the institutions designed to protect us. Dystopian comparisons to films like Minority Report come to mind.

The data trail an online user leaves behind is astonishing. We should not be surprised that companies continue to exploit this money-making opportunity. But some recent cases have tested the boundaries of business-to-customer relationships. Target’s use of data allowed them to accurately predict when women were going to give birth, allowing them to send personalized coupons to expecting mothers. This was too clearly too much. And so companies are learning to use the data more selectively.

If we want to continue to shop and interact with the world’s largest companies, it seems that we have little say in our online privacy. Yet as so many people are not aware of this, we are in a situation where there an almost constant stream of hidden communication between institutions and individuals without individuals even knowing it is going on at all.

Is there Potential for Online Civil Disobedience?

In Pew Research’s report on the future of privacy, one anonymous respondent wrote, “There will be a subset of the public rebelling against this surveillance and data-driven society through either withdrawal from the online world or acts of ‘civil disobedience’ against the powerful.” This is one possible outcome, but we take a more positive view of the future, seeing a world where solutions based on privacy will become the norm and sit alongside the current data-driven offerings. Platforms like Facebook will always have their place, but consumer will understand and appreciate the boundaries between non-private and privacy-based solutions.

Our Relationship with the Media

The growth of social media platforms has already seen a fragmentation in how people receive their news and other factual information. The sheer amount of content generated and consumed is unfathomable and fake news has become a staple of public discourse. But arguably the most worrying part is the sheer power that platforms such as Twitter and Facebook wield. Documentaries such as The Social Dilemma have brought this issue into the public discourse.

The Role of Regulation

The regulators are catching up. Privacy-based regulations such as EU GDPR are coming into force around the world. This is certainly progress, but new regulations may actually cause further complications and confusion in the short term – for example, what is the point of all those cookie notices? And if all countries (or states, in the case of the US) each have their own, different rules, it will inevitably create inefficiencies. As one respondent to Pew’s Privacy Report said, “there is no way the world’s varied cultures, with their different views about privacy, will be able to come to an agreement on how to address civil liberties issues on the global Internet.”

What’s Next?

Driven by a combination of appalling examples of the invasive use of technology by totalitarian regimes, and inevitable missteps from companies walking the privacy tightrope, the general population will progressively become more privacy conscious. Governments and companies will be held to account on their use of data, and individuals will quickly learn to use services with different business models when they want more privacy.

The StayPrivate Team

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