Privacy Inequality is Coming, and it Does Not Look Pretty

Today we are on a technological precipice. Falling off the edge will lead us on a collision course to a new dimension of social inequality, a world in which access to privacy is out of reach for a large segment of society. Article 12 of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation.” Over the past decade, however, society has been willingly sacrificing this right, embracing technologies that encroach on its access to privacy.

The rising value of our personal data, the proliferation of sensors monitoring our every step and breath, and the perfecting of artificially intelligent data analysis tools are fueling a surge in surveillance akin to the world portrayed in Minority Report.

Society will under-appreciate the value of privacy as long as we possess it in abundance.

Since the advent of the telephone, we have placed an incredible amount of value on the ability to connect with each other and the world, with little thought to our ability to disconnect. Now, we are faced with virtually unlimited connectivity, so much so that we are addicted. Many of us prioritize the late night buzz of our phones over a peaceful, undisturbed sleep and cannot resist sharing pictures of our every meal.

Yet privacy is an asset, similar to our health, that we take for granted while we still have it in abundance. We fritter away these irreplaceable assets in naivety and only realize their true worth once they are gone. Today, we just about maintain an element of control over our privacy: “Getting off the grid” is unorthodox, but not impossible for those willing to forego smartphones, email, and other technologies that streamline our lives. However, our ample access to privacy becomes increasingly scarce as we allow our day-to-day devices and major infrastructure systems — from thermostats to hospitals — to become “smart.”

In tomorrow’s world, our ability to speak to and be monitored by our devices may reduce the friction of purchasing the groceries or wake us from our sleep at the lightest point of our sleep cycle. We will undoubtedly fail to account for the invisible cost of such small conveniences, the compromise of our access to privacy.

Today’s world is universally giving up its privacy for free. In tomorrow’s world, it is only society’s vulnerable that will pay the price.

You may have heard the saying “If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product.” To date, the vast majority of us have happily made that trade-off in return for the services we receive. As the value of privacy rises and becomes more apparent to the every-day consumer, the free market will attempt to both meet the user demand for enhanced privacy features and also meet the insatiable corporate demand for more access to consumer data. Ad platforms such as Google and Facebook will reap the profits as advertisers compete with consumers for control over their data.

A BCG report estimates that the value of “digital identity” could be worth $1 trillion in the Eurozone alone by 2020, with over a third of this value to be unlocked by companies in the industry. Protecting this digital identity will be a big business in itself, and as I have argued, companies such as Dropbox can justify nosebleed valuations by building a business model around privacy. While this market will explode into the mainstream in the coming decade, early adopters of privacy-oriented products are currently viewed with disdain (the media depicts users of Tor, SpiderOak or DuckDuckGo as people who have something to hide, albeit sometimes rightly so). We live in an era where data is currency, and consumers will continue to benefit from increasingly powerful services that are nominally free but require incrementally more access to our data. But as this information gets used in ever more creative and insidious ways, those in society who recognize the true value of their data will be willing to pay for the privilege of anonymity, while the rest will continue exposing themselves in the name of convenience.

We are heading to a world of privacy inequality, and rather than fighting it, we are encouraging it.

The obvious implication of my argument is that those who don’t recognize the need to preserve their access to privacy, or can’t afford to buy it, will become increasingly exposed until their entire lives are documented, quantified, and analyzed by a sea of connected eyes and ears.

A life without control over one’s access to privacy is one that can be exploited by third parties, potentially violating an individual’s personal liberty and freedom from fear. Life will be so personalized and predetermined for citizens that advertisers will control not only what they see, hear, and read but also where they go, how they get there, who they meet, what they eat, and when they go to sleep. This life will eliminate individuality, serendipity, and original thought for those whose lives are affected, and society as a whole will suffer as a result.

The introduction of privacy inequality creates a new type of societal class system: a higher class of citizens free from fear of manipulation or control and a lower class of citizens who must continue to give up their privacy in order to operate within the prevailing economic system, losing their ability to control their own destiny in the process. Do we want to create a world where privacy and opportunity are robbed from society’s most vulnerable?

Access to privacy should not be a business — it should be a fundamental human right.

I believe that we are on this treacherous path through no malicious intent on behalf of the corporate technology giants of today. Google, Facebook, Uber, Dropbox, and others of their ilk provide fantastic services and share common missions to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems. But the road to hell is paved with good intentions: By offering more and more services in exchange for more and more of our data, these companies are increasingly making privacy a scarce resource, pushing up its value. Recognizing the need to protect their assets, the rich will pay up to protect them. Google and Facebook have proven themselves adaptable to changing market conditions, so when the rich open their pockets, the tech giants will respond by offering premium privacy products. In a heartbeat, this hypothetical dual-class world of privacy inequality becomes a reality.

It is worth noting that privacy has always been a luxury good — isolated country estates, private jets, and gated communities have long been mediums that allow the rich to hide away from the world — but today, we are more dependent on our technology than in any prior period in history, allowing it to influence us even in our most intimate settings. Being unable to access even a modicum of privacy will pose a constant threat to those unable to afford it, or recognize its necessity.

Google’s in-house philosopher, Luciano Floridi, has argued that our world is made up entirely of information, which means that our digital data is as much a part of our personal identity as our DNA. For Floridi, privacy is a fundamental and inalienable human right, rather than a business opportunity.

It is an individual’s duty to monitor and protect his or her own health to the best of his or her ability, but because an unhealthy population is a drag on society as a whole, we have a civic duty to educate individuals of the importance of being healthy. Similarly, we have a civic duty to educate consumers to the value of their personal data before we suffer the negative externalities associated with a society deprived of privacy.

Let’s get to work.