In almost every conversation I have with other young people today about privacy, I’m told that they “have nothing to hide” or that they “know companies steal our information but use their apps anyways.” We’re ambivalent about the prospect of losing our privacy, content to reassure ourselves that there’s nothing to be done even while our government tracks our communications and companies build vast portfolios of data on our personal lives.
We don’t know how most of this data is used, and often we don’t even know when it’s recorded. For example, a 2018 New York Times investigation revealed that so-called “anonymized” location data was actually deeply personal and could identify individuals — after all, who else attends your school, goes home to your house and works in your building? That highly specific data was sold to hedge funds, advertising groups and other companies, all hoping to make a profit.
How do they profit? We don’t know.
Some companies have our health records, financial documents and flight records, all collected by browser extensions that we might install to find deals or insert pictures of funny cats onto websites. Others detect our political views and combine them with psychological traits to influence our votes, like Cambridge Analytica did in various elections in the Caribbean, Africa and the United States, including the 2016 presidential election.
Maybe you trust companies not to misuse your data. Do you trust them to keep it safe from people who will? People who leak or sell credentials, credit card numbers and other sensitive data hack databases at an astounding rate. Once a company’s (or our government’s) systems are breached, it’s impossible to know where that data goes and how it’s used. In the dark-web economy of data-thieves, it doesn’t matter the buyer’s intentions — only the amount they’re willing to pay.
Now, you might say that there’s nothing we can do to protect our privacy. Our generation has come of age in an online world where data collection is impossible to avoid. It was true before the pandemic — just try participating in contemporary American culture while eschewing social media — but the pandemic has moved even more of our lives online. Do we know what data Zoom collects on us? And what about the spyware some colleges are asking students to install during tests?
We have no choice but to use these technologies because our modern world is structured around them. But we can choose whether or not to care about our privacy. We have a chance to redefine the relationship between tech companies, our government and ourselves for the rest of our lives — and for our kids. The only way we can do this is by advocating for strong privacy protections, running for office and ensuring that our tech-illiterate government actually protects us.
Even if we don’t care enough to fight for our own privacy, we should care about the privacy of future generations — generations of children that have no choice but to be tracked and monitored.
Schools and tech companies already force children to learn with technology that spies on them. And young kids grow up to find their personal, private memories — pictures and videos of their lives — shared far and wide on social media by well-meaning but misguided parents. Meanwhile, their health and location records are sold on the black market, harvested from their parents’ computers by dubious extensions and powerful private capital.
We’re dooming future generations to grow up in a world that invades their privacy, preventing them from ever living full, human lives. In effect, we’re acting the same way that baby boomers and previous generations did when confronted with climate change. They knew by the late 1970s that climate change was not only real but caused by human activity and extremely dangerous. In fact, we knew that we needed prompt action to prevent its most destructive effects. But boomers — at the height of their political hegemony in the 90s — did nothing.
Some believed climate change was a myth, perhaps convinced by gaslighting oil barons. Others knew it was bad but didn’t think there was anything they could do. Sound familiar?
That negligence nearly doomed us, and still might. Thankfully, the current generation has stepped up to the challenge of saving our planet and our lives. But as good as we’ve been on climate, we’ve dropped the ball on privacy — and future generations will never forgive us.