Privacy is a fundamental human right that allows us to be our true selves. It’s what allows us to be weirdos without shame. It allows us to have dissenting opinions without consequence. And, ultimately, it’s what allows us to be free. This is why many nations have strict laws concerning privacy. However, in spite of this common understanding, privacy on the Internet is one of the least understood and poorly defined topics to date because it spans a vast array of issues, taking shape in many different forms, which makes it incredibly difficult to identify and discuss. However, I’d like to try to resolve this ambiguity.
In the United States, it is a federal offense to open someone’s mail. This is considered a criminal breach of privacy that could land someone in prison for up to five years. Metaphorically speaking, each piece of data we create on the Internet — whether photo, video, text, or something else — can be thought of as parcel of mail. However, unlike opening our mail in real life, Internet companies can legally open every piece of mail that gets delivered through their system without legal consequence. Moreover, they can make copies of it as well. What these companies are doing would be comparable to someone opening our mail, copying it at Kinkos, then storing it in a file cabinet with our name on it and sharing it with anyone willing to pay for it. Want to open that file cabinet or delete some of the copies? Too bad. Our mail is currently considered their property, and we have almost no control over how it gets used.
Could you imagine the outrage the public would experience if they found out that the postal service was holding their mail hostage and selling it to whoever was willing to pay? What’s happening with data on the Internet is no different, and it’s time this changes.
It’s more than just a matter of ethics that this happens, it’s a matter of basic human rights.
The problem with making the changes that need to be made (without changes being forced into place by regulation) is putting dollar signs to the issues. What is the financial return on a 20,000-hour engineering investment to improve consumer privacy standards? Are consumers demanding these changes? Because if it doesn’t make a fiscal return and consumers aren’t demanding it, then why should change be made? And even if they are and there is a return, what does 20,000 hours of investment even look like? What is going to be put on the product roadmap and when? These are all valid concerns that need to be addressed in order to help us move forward effectively. So, let’s discuss.