Privacy for Sale

03/02/2020

Oliver Thorn, better known as Philosophy Tube on YouTube, released his latest video Data recently. Much of the content was stuff I was already aware of, and some I have written a bit about before, but there were a few parts that really stuck out – partly because, the very next day, what happened in the scene happened to me.

The video is a dialogue between a bouncer and a concerned patron (both played by Thorn) which keeps rewinding and changing to introduce new arguments and ideas, but it is all centred around the fact that the patron trying to enter the bar has to have his ID scanned if he wishes to enter. It is, ostensibly, for security purposes, but what information is collected and what is it used for beyond “security”? Where does it go, and who gets to access it, etc. etc.

While having a human check an ID to ensure you aren’t underage and trying to enter a licenced venue is arguably appropriate, having it scanned adds a lot of extra questions. It was a relative’s birthday recently, and the club we all went to scanned our IDs, something I know they did not do last year when my family went to the same location, and I cannot help but wonder what the purpose of it was.

Even if it was solely for security and a check to ensure the integrity of the card, they now, undoubtedly, have the details of my driver’s license in their system. That doesn’t sit well with me, who would rather not have a digital trail detailing where I’ve been and when – and yes, you can certainly go further and say you’d prefer you banking transactions and online interactions to be entirely private. But that isn’t the world we live in, and more “security” measures keep being put in place, whether it’s cameras to check mobile phone use in cars or scanning IDs whenever you enter a venue.

There are potentially justifiable arguments for each of these being implemented, but the question then shifts to how much you are willing to disclose at risk of your own privacy. Another argument is the idea of willingly selling your data for money, to which Thorn’s final and desperate response was “my privacy should not be for sale.” We are already at this stage, however, as that is what you can do (to an extent) with the Brave browser. It gets rid of all ad content and allows you to receive a payment of “Basic Attention Token” (BAT), a token connected to the cryptocurrency Ether (on the Ethereum blockchain), for allowing certain content to appear instead.

I am not 100% sure if this data – what you choose to have as advertisements on your screen – is known to anyone beyond the individual user, but blockchain and other technologies offer a double-edged sword in terms of privacy. There will very likely be monetary incentive to “sell” your data to companies who want it. You get a bit of extra cash, they get some information – everyone wins, right?

But what value do you place on your privacy? Is your personal information simply something to exchange? Even if you kept all nonidentifying information secret, that doesn’t stop companies now from essentially being able to figure out everything about you within moments. What’s to stop companies in the future from doing the same, only with data that you sold them believing it was secure? And Thorn’s most troubling reference was to the fact that this kind of transaction would disproportionately affect poorer people. If you are struggling financially, maybe selling your data will help… but if you are well off, then you can remain anonymous in this system.

In the end, it really is up to the individual. If you want to “sell” your data for a quick buck on the side, then that is your prerogative, but if you end up doing so because you need the money, or because a service you require prevents you from accessing it without doing so, then what kind of privacy and freedom is that? Data has become one of, if not the most, valuable asset in human history. We as a society need to figure out, quickly, whether we want to live in a world where that value is personal or merely a financial and controlling tool for corporate and State actors.

I know which side I’m taking on this one.

 

Liked this? Read Blockchain: Owning Your Data

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