Regaining Control Over Personal Data
Few limits exist on tech firms’ ability to invade our privacy for profit.
By Vivek Wadhwa
The theft of 143 million Americans’ personal details in the Equifax hack and Russia’s attempted manipulation of the 2016 U.S. election through Facebook had one thing in common: They were facilitated by the absence of legal protection of personal data.
Credit bureaus have long been gathering information about our earnings, spending habits, and loan-repayment histories. Tech companies went one step further, monitoring our Web-surfing habits, e-mails, and phone calls. User profiles based on these data allow tech firms to sell ads directed at specific audiences. In the case of Facebook ads linked to Russia, about 25 percent of the ads were aimed at certain regions of the United States, according to Wired.
We have volunteered information on our friends and our likes and dislikes, and shared family photographs. And we allowed Smart TVs, Internet-enabled toys, and voice-controlled ’bots to observe what we do in our homes.
In the land grab for data, there were no clear regulations about who owned what, so tech companies staked claims to everything. While assuring its users, “You own all of the content and information you post on Facebook,” the social-media giant asserts that it has “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content” posted to the site.
American laws are so inadequate that such companies are not even required to tell consumers what information they are gathering and how they will use it. And they have practically no liability for compromising it; they can protect it as they choose and sell it to whomever they want—regardless of how the third party will use it. No wonder Equifax had such lax security and Russians were able to target the susceptible with misinformation on Facebook.
It is time to level the playing field.
To start with, we must require the data brokers to provide industrial-strength security. The best way to do this would be to make them liable for any thefts. We hold our car manufacturers responsible for the safety of their products; why shouldn’t the tech companies bear similar responsibility?
And then we must develop clear laws stipulating that we own our own data.
Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig believes data should be protected as a property right and require consent before it is taken. “When you have a property right, before someone takes your property they must negotiate with you about how much it is worth,” says Lessig. Imagine a website that allowed you to manage all of your data, including those generated by the devices in your house, and to charge interested companies license fees for its use. That is what could become possible.
With the cost of DNA sequencing dropping exponentially, it will soon be as common as blood tests. The companies that today ask us to upload our photos may tomorrow ask us to upload our genomic information. Technology will be able also to discern our mental state and emotions. These data will encompass everything that differentiates us as human beings, including our genetics and psychology. While credit reports could result in withholding of loans, corporate use of our genetic data could affect our jobs and livelihoods. We could be singled out for having genetic predispositions to crime or disease and find ourselves discriminated against in new ways.
Some states have begun passing laws to say that your DNA data is your property, but we need federal laws that stipulate that we own all of our own data, even if it takes an amendment to the Constitution. The right to decide what information we want to share and the right to know how it is being used are fundamental human rights in this era of advancing technologies.
It isn’t going to be easy to develop the new systems for maintaining control of personal information, but it is imperative that we start discussing solutions. As Thomas Jefferson said in 1816: “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”
Vivek Wadhwa is a Distinguished Fellow and adjunct professor at Carnegie Mellon University College of Engineering’s Silicon Valley campus. His most recent book is The Driver in the Driverless Car: How Our Technology Choices Will Create the Future.