Was 2018 a Turning Point for Privacy?

Whether it was personal data exposed by the breach of a major corporation, or the constant low-grade surveillance by tech companies and their shadowy association of data brokers, privacy - or the compromise of privacy - made a record number of headlines.

Social Apps
Natasha Stokes
By Natasha Stokes

In 2018, the tech giants whose services we use everyday showed their hand: it was all personal.   

Facebook was at the centre of scandal after scandal that revealed the extent of personal information it held on its users – and the extent to which this information was shared with advertisers.

The Cambridge Analytica affair that saw the data of over 87 million Facebook users leveraged to swing US voters was the most publicized but far from the only significant breach of trust. A small company called Six4Three leaked a ton of internal emails between Facebook chiefs that discussed about how to better monetize the platform by extracting fees from developers for continued, unfettered access to a user’s friends’ data. To cap off the year, it turned out that for years, Facebook had given over 150 third-parties including Spotify and Microsoft access to users’ private messages, all because users had the temerity to link these services to their Facebook accounts.

Leader Mark Zuckerberg has been called up by national governments (he declined to turn up for the UK Parliament, but attended his hearing with the US Senate and Congress), where he insisted Facebook does not sell user data – a fine example of a technicality, since what it does is charge advertisers to be able to access its vast, incredibly detailed stores of user data.

Which, to be fair, is similar to other companies that also do not sell user data.

Of course, nearly any data related to how users use the internet is of tantalizing value to brokers and hackers alike. This year, major companies that were hacked for their users details including logins and financial information included social networks (Google+, Reddit, Quora), hotels (Radisson, Marriott), airlines (British Airways, Cathay Pacific) and even my online contact lens supplier, Vision Direct.

But perhaps the most defining trait of 2018 is the escalating revelation of just how much of our personal data is being passively shared and surveilled everyday.

Google, with whom the motto ‘Don’t Be Evil’ can now only be ironically linked, was found to continue tracking and storing smartphone locations even when users had disabled it. It’s since transpired that the big G most probably designs its Android mobile software to seduce users to accepting constant location tracking – but even savvy people who read app permissions aren’t safe from advertisers’ data-grasping tentacles.

A landmark investigation by the New York Times found several smartphone apps with users’ permissions to access their real-time location (for in-app features) were also constantly sharing this data with data brokers – without specifying anything along those lines in their permissions.

Such is the revealing nature of location data that the fitness app Strava became a matter of national security when its public real-time map of peoples’ workouts was shown to reveal operations at military bases and the routes of military personnel.

No wonder then, that we saw the slow rise of alternative social networks that promised a no-tracking, ad-free experience where individual newsfeeds are not determined by those posts with the most engagement, but simply by chronological order, free of insights into someone’s behavior, likes and political leaning.

We need more alternatives. According to this year’s Freedom House report, published in the summer, global internet freedom is declining for the eighth year running. Authoritarian governments including Bangladesh, Egypt, Iran and Uganda use the pretext of battling fake news and data scandals to implement censorship laws, block foreign media services and charge social media tax. Meanwhile, Australia passed an unprecedented law that will allow authorities to decrypt encrypted messaging such as WhatsApp.

On the other hand, Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, which passed in April, has cut the number of ad trackers in Europe (while favoring Google’s ad network, probably because Google has the resources to comply with alacrity), and since led US lawmakers to debate an American version. In the UK, the media regulator Ofcom is set to push for regulation of social networks in hopes of reducing the online harm that people increasingly perceive to occur on the likes of Facebook and Twitter.

As 2018 winds up, perhaps the year’s glut of privacy scandals, breaches and missteps are pointing people and institutions to not only refuse the status quo, but to demand another, one where their privacy rights are regulated – and people-friendly.