“Privacy is collective, like the environment. If you don’t take care of your data, others suffer the consequences ”| Talent

Imagine you had a master key for everything. A password that gives access to the door of your house, your room, your diary, your phone, your computer, your car, your checking account, your medical history. Would you go around making copies of that key and giving them to strangers? Probably not. So why do you give your personal data to practically anyone who asks for it? ” This excerpt from Privacy is Power (Bantam Press), the first book by Spanish-Mexican philosopher Carissa Véliz, places us on a subject that haunts her: surveillance capitalism is based on an inadmissible intrusion into our privacy. Véliz has dedicated his thesis and his research career to the intersection between privacy and technology, which he currently combines with teaching at the University of Oxford.

The data economy has played out right under our noses over the past decade, he argues, and we were late to realize the seriousness of its consequences. Therefore, Véliz concludes, the only possible answer is to end the model. The use of the data must be regulated at once and it must be prohibited to trade with them.

Your recipe is a depth charge for big tech.

If there are people who think that it is too radical to say that we have to end the data economy it is because we are speaking from a status quo that is absolutely absurd and ridiculous. The extreme and radical thing is that it is valid to have a business model that is based on systematically and massively violating rights. Now that is crazy.

In recent weeks we have learned that Washington will denounce Google for dominance and Brussels against Amazon for using third-party data to compete against them. Does it seem like a first step in that direction?

We will see. It can be an incredible opportunity or just a show. But it definitely shows that the time when technology is going to be regulated is near.

The philosopher Carissa Véliz.
The philosopher Carissa Véliz. Manuel Vazquez

That will not be easy.

If we review history we will see that we have been able to regulate any other industry: railways, banking, energy, automobiles, food… At the time, Rockefeller’s power was brutal. Perhaps the most feasible strategy is to make sure Big Tech is no longer monopolies and then regulate the details of privacy.

It says in the book that Google and Facebook don’t sell our data, but the power to influence our lives.

Yes, what right do they have? Autonomy has been a fundamental principle for Western societies, particularly European ones, for centuries. It is the foundation of our ethics. And it is absurd that there is a business system that is based on the idea of ​​manipulating that autonomy, of undermining it.

The data economy is based on an unethical business model, without any limits and that we have allowed to proliferate at will, without consequences “

How would you convince those who say they have nothing to hide that they are wrong?

I wrote the book with them in mind. One way is to tell anyone who thinks like this: if you have nothing to fear, give me your email password. To date no one has given it to me because they don’t trust me, which is reasonable. But do you trust Google, which reads all Gmail emails? Or in Zuckerberg? We all have vulnerabilities.

Let’s assume you are healthy: are you sure about it? Because this algorithm that is on your phone and that analyzes how you move your finger through your contacts says that you have Parkinson’s or depression onset. And I may know it before a doctor tells you. And perhaps that information is relevant for you to be hired or not in the future. Are you sure you have nothing to hide? On the other hand, by protecting yourself you protect others, especially those who are parents. Once you share something, you no longer control it.

One of the most striking ideas in his book is precisely that privacy is something collective, not individual.

Technology companies are very interested in people believing that privacy is something personal, in that there are those who decide to share their data just as there are those who prefer chocolate to vanilla. There is actually a collective aspect of privacy that our ancestors understood better, hence why they included it among the Human Rights after World War II. Privacy is collective in at least two ways. On the one hand, our data usually contains data about other people. If I do a genetic test I am revealing the DNA of my present and future relatives. If I share data about my location I am also giving it about those who live or work with me. If I give information about my psychology I am giving information about people I don’t even know who share my profile.

On the other hand, we all suffer from the effects of lack of privacy. It happens as with contamination: you can be very careful with the management of your data, that if your environment is not, you will suffer the consequences. There have been severe cases of cybercriminals caught because their friends shared photos of them on Facebook. The Facebook and Cambridge Analytica scandal was paradigmatic: only 270,000 people gave their data, with consent in quotation marks, and from them they came to obtain the 87 million, which were used to build a tool that predicted what individuals with psychological characteristics would vote on Similar.

It is so difficult to keep data securely and so easy to misuse it that it is very naive to think that all that information will always be used for good “

It says that democracy itself is threatened by lack of privacy.

On the one hand, it is influencing how voters feel. In the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump strategists identified 3.5 million black citizens who could be convinced not to vote. Just trying to stop someone from voting should be totally illegal. Facebook and Twitter have tried to implement certain control policies, but they remain one-sided: no one tells them what to do. Clearly, in the digital age, democracies that seemed very well established can no longer 100% guarantee safe, legitimate and fair elections.

On the other hand, democracy is based on the idea that all people are equal, that we have the same rights, that we all have a vote. But if society does not treat us as equals, if it does not show us the same opportunities, if it charges us differently for the same service, if we are treated based on the value of our data, the social fabric is being eroded in a moment in which there is a lot of distrust and polarization of discourses.

The data brokers (companies that collect and sell data) threaten democracy?

It’s crazy that they exist. From a moral, political and justice point of view it is absolute nonsense. There are documented cases in which abusers obtain the data of their ex-partners by buying it from data brokers, or a group of cybercriminals who bought the credit card number of thousands of people. The latest scandal in England is that data collected by bars and pubs on who passes through the establishments, which was only supposed to be to fight the coronavirus, is being sold. That is one more symptom that we are installed in an unethical business model, without any limits and that we have allowed it to proliferate to its liking, without consequences.

Philosophy and privacy

Carissa Véliz politely refuses to say in what city and year she was born (“Is it absolutely necessary to put it? I don’t give that information anywhere”). He does concede that he is half Spanish, half Mexican. Your book Privacy is Power. Why and How you Should Take Back Control of your Data (Bantam Press) has been well received. Its edition in Spanish is expected in 2021. Véliz is Professor of Ethics, Moral Philosophy and Philosophy of Mind at the University of Oxford. He studied Philosophy at the University of Salamanca, finished his degree at the University of Toronto and took a Master’s degree in Philosophy at the University of New York. He received his doctorate from Oxford, where he also conducted research postdoc related to privacy.

In the digital age, information is stored by default. How to manage privacy in a world where everything is registered?

Storing all the data and saving it until the end of time is utter negligence. Forgetfulness has had a fundamental function throughout history. If you remembered everything, it would be impossible to have a fresh relationship with the present, you would always be carrying the past. It has also been very important for the functioning of societies, among other things so that they are not so impious. Before, oblivion had many more mechanisms. For one thing, human memory has limits. On the other, it was impossible to save everything. And the materials in which we stored the information were quite fragile. Now the situation has changed. It is so difficult to keep data securely and so easy to misuse it that it is very naive to think that all that information will always be used for good.

It maintains that personalized advertising should be prohibited.

Those who defend it say: users only see the ads that matter to them and companies sharpen the shot. But what is the price to pay? That women are not shown advertisements for well-paid jobs, that democracy is eroding because personalized political propaganda is sent that we cannot comment on among ourselves because we see different things … If that is the price, it is not worth it.

And it is not clear that it is beneficial either. To make contextual shoe ads, I don’t need to know your name, if you have siblings, if you suffer from depression, if you are gay or the party you vote for, but rather that you tell me what type of footwear you are looking for. Evidence shows that personalized ads have an effect, but a limited one. They add more or less 4% to sales, but that ad costs 98% more than an ad of another type would cost. So it seems that we are losing a lot for very little or nothing.


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