Imagine you stumble across an auction. There’s an auctioneer with a gavel, standing on a stage. There are bidders, holding up their paddles to indicate their interest as the price jumps higher and higher. And there are lots for sale – the emails you’ve opened and read, your location data, all of your contacts, your recent transactions and browsing history. “It’s not creepy, it’s commerce!” the delighted auctioneer shouts.
I was asked to speak to a group of computer science students at Imperial College London about the importance of privacy this week. Many started from the belief that they didn’t mind data tracking because they had nothing to hide. But the above scenario, as dramatised by Apple in its latest advertising campaign, shows just how invasive technology can be if we don’t keep privacy front of mind.
I’ve written before about why everyone working in technology has an ethical obligation to prioritise privacy. But sadly that responsibility isn’t always recognised. As Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, pointed out last year on Data Privacy Day: “An interconnected ecosystem of companies and data brokers, purveyors of fake news and peddlers of division, of trackers and hucksters just looking to make a quick buck is more present in our lives than it has ever been. [And] it has never been so clear how it degrades our fundamental right to privacy first and our social fabric by consequence.“
“If we accept as normal and unavoidable that everything in our lives can be aggregated and sold, then we lose so much more than data,” he added. “We lose the freedom to be human.”