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Privacy Isn’t a Right You Can Click Away

by | Jun 29, 2020 | New, News

Limit your “always” and your “nevers”.

— Amy Poehler

Be honest—have you ever read a privacy disclosure? Even once?

Facebook’s data privacy policy is more than 4,000 words. It contains dozens of links to hundreds of pages of complex terms and agreements. Even if you had the time to read it, you’d need a law degree and a data science background to understand which rights you’re signing away and what frightening experiments Facebook is cooking up with your private life as raw material.

WIRED OPINIONABOUT

Sherrod Brown is Ohio’s senior US senator and ranking member of the US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.

And even if you do have handfuls of advanced degrees and a superhuman ability to read the hundreds of privacy policies you agree to every year, clicking No isn’t a realistic option when you depend on the service. So most of us click Yes and agree to sign away our information, because our credit cards, mortgages, car loans, bank accounts, health apps, smart phones, and email accounts all require us to. It’s simply the price of admission.

Privacy is a civil right. But corporations force you to sign it away every day.

There’s a reason these privacy and data agreements are impossible to understand and to avoid: They were never meant to protect you—they are meant to protect Big Tech.

We don’t expect citizens to be aeronautical engineers, making sure they understand all the risks of flying, and then sign a form giving away their right to sue if the plane goes down. In the same way, we can’t expect everyone to be a privacy expert just so they can protect their families from corporations that want to exploit their data.

To reclaim our privacy we need to limit the amount of personal information that’s out there.

That’s why I wrote a bill that takes the burden off of consumers and puts it where it should be: on Big Tech. My plan separates innovative and helpful uses of data from the abusive and invasive practices that have become commonplace. It creates an agency to monitor companies that collect data and gives everyday Americans powerful legal tools to hold those companies accountable. It also bans facial recognition, an immature and dangerous technology, outright.

My bill would drastically scale back the permitted uses of your personal data, banning companies from collecting any data that isn’t strictly necessary to provide you with the service you asked for. For example, signing up for a credit card online won’t give the bank the right to use your data for anything else—not marketing, and certainly not to use that data to sign you up for five more accounts you didn’t ask for (we’re looking at you, Wells Fargo).

It’s not only the specific companies you sign away your data to that profit off it—they sell it to other companies you’ve never heard of, without your knowledge. And all of that data flowing through online stores and social media sites can be harvested by the government too. There’s no check box to opt out of that. When you sign away your privacy rights to a corporation, you’ve basically given the government permission to sift through your secrets as well.

Recently, a company called Clearview AI scoured the internet to train facial-recognition technology that it sold to law enforcement around the country. Facial recognition is reportedly being used by police in Minneapolis and other places, to target Black Lives Matter protesters exercising their First Amendment rights. And this dangerous and powerful technology was responsible for the wrongful arrest of a man in Michigan. Do you know anyone who consented to that?

This plan would put a stop to Big Tech mining your data and selling it to abusive corporations or the government. The right to privacy or the right to peacefully protest isn’t something we should lose by clicking "I agree." Under my plan, you could rest easy knowing that regardless of the 4,000-word privacy policy shoved in your face, it’s illegal for your data to be bought and sold, or sent to law enforcement.

You might hear arguments from tech companies that my proposal would stifle innovation and interrupt their business model. My answer to that is, yes, if your business model is built on exploiting people, we want to stop it. Silicon Valley should respond by doing what it has always done best: innovating. The reason Big Tech hasn’t come up with a business model that doesn’t rely on spying on people isn’t because they can’t, it’s because they haven’t tried. Americans have been getting free media in exchange for listening to or reading advertisements for decades, and it never required an invasion of privacy.

I am confident that if we raise the bar, smart engineers and others will meet it. They have before.

I will never forget the year the Cuyahoga River in Cleveland, Ohio, where I live, caught fire. It was 1969, and at the time, there were almost no environmental standards—cities were covered in smog, and waterways were so polluted they burned. After that fire made national headlines, Americans began to wake up, and in 1970 Congress passed the Clean Air Act. Shortly after that, the Environmental Protection Agency set a bold goal: drastically reduce vehicle emissions.

Auto manufacturers went berserk. It was impossible, they said. Automobile assembly lines would have to be shut down. The few cars that could be manufactured to meet the tough new standards would be too expensive for most American families.

It never fails to amaze me how corporate executives underestimate American ingenuity and American workers.

Just a few years later, the industry invented and mass-produced the catalytic converter that we all have on our cars today, reducing smog and other air pollution, like lead, across the country. American industries were innovative enough in the ’70s to tackle big social problems, and I think they’re just as innovative today. But just like 50 years ago, we need to challenge them if we want results.

WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here. Submit an op-ed at opinion@wired.com.

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