Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Internet Privacy Loss and Public Perception of Its Harms

-- By MichaelWright - 21 Mar 2017


In 1978, President Carter declared a state of emergency in Love Canal, a small neighborhood within Niagara Falls, New York, after leaching carcinogenic chemicals were discovered in residents’ basements, backyards, playgrounds and wells. As a result, the chemicals – 21,000 tons of which had been buried in an abandoned canal project twenty years earlier – caused an extreme spike in birth defects, miscarriages, and death in the neighborhood. By 1981, Carter had declared two separate states of emergencies and had all families (approximately 800) evacuated and relocated. In the minds of Americans, this event came to symbolize the extreme danger that toxic waste dumping posed. From the publicity generated by the event, protests and environmental justice movements across the country erupted, and policymakers were forced to respond. As a result, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act (CERCLA) was passed. Less than forty years later, an entire regulatory agency has developed in the attempt to prevent disasters such as Love Canal from occurring again.

In the realm of environmental pollution, the Love Canal disaster highlighted the very direct link between pollution and severe harm to human life. There was no confusion for the common citizen as to what the harmful effects of pollution were – toxic chemicals, if leaked, could cause severe illness and death to those who were exposed to it. Thus, government response to this problem resulted from (1) publicizing the events at Love Canal and its health effects, which in turn (2) incited outrage by citizens who then took to the streets to protest and demand change.

In the realm of internet privacy, however, the link between loss of privacy and harm is not as direct nor as easily seen by the common citizen. The harms associated with the loss of internet privacy are more concealed, a lot more complex, and are immensely harder to explain to the public. Therefore, whereas pollution required only publicity about its health effects in order to incite public outrage at a magnitude that prompted government action, internet privacy destruction creates harms less understandable to the common citizen. Following Snowden’s revelations, the extent to which our internet lives are being collected, stored, and searched was revealed to the world, yet for the majority of citizens, the response was mostly “I have nothing to hide, so I don’t really care.”

Public Misperception of Internet Privacy Loss and Its Harms

For those who feel as though they do not care about the loss of internet privacy, understanding of the issue and their line of reasoning goes something like this: (1) the government is able to read all my texts, emails, etc., can listen to my phone calls, and can see everything I search and do on the internet; (2) the governmental body responsible for this conduct is looking for high level criminals and terrorist activity; therefore (3) since I am not a high level criminal nor engaged in terrorist activity, the government has no reason to go through the information gathered about me, and if they did they would find nothing serious enough for them to act on. Although strictly speaking this is true, this line of thinking completely misses the most egregious harms associated with internet privacy loss.

Present-Day Harm Caused By Internet Privacy Loss: Social Credit

Currently, an excellent real world exemplar of how internet privacy loss can harm individuals, yet is not perceived as harmful, may be found in China. Currently, China is working to develop a ‘social credit system’ aimed at compiling all citizens’ online data in one place and issuing a score based on various social, political, commercial, and legal activities that each citizen engages in. Each activity will either raise or lower your social credit score, and your credit score will have real world implications, such as the ability to receive loans or the ability to travel.

Though the aim is to implement this program by 2020, currently the Chinese government is monitoring eight different social credit pilot projects; the largest of them being Sesame Credit. Sesame Credit, created by Alibaba (the world’s biggest online shopping platform), is a prototype that encourages people to display their credit scores in social settings. Baihe, the Chinese equivalent of Tinder, has teamed up with Sesame Credit and allows its 90 million users to post their social credit scores on their dating profiles. Although Sesame Credit will not explain exactly how its algorithm calculates each person’s score, spokespeople from the company have explained that it rates people’s financial and consumption activities. For example, if you fail to pay a taxi, or if you play videogames for 10 hours a day, you will be considered untrustworthy or idle, respectively, and your score will go down; conversely, if you buy diapers you are probably a parent, and therefore are more likely to have a better sense of responsibility thus increasing your score.

Public Misperception of Social Credit

Unfortunately, Chinese citizens’ reviews of Sesame credit, according to a report by BBC on the topic, is surprisingly positive. Interviewees appreciated the fact that they received VIP reservations with hotels, prominent dating profiles on Baihe, and generally expressed a preference for the convenience and trust-building nature of the credit scores. Furthermore, few seemed to realize the ways in which bad scores could harm individuals, such as preventing them from receiving loans or renting apartments. Thus, it seems as though the public is largely unable to perceive the harms associated with internet privacy loss. In the case of toxic pollution, people easily saw the harms associated therewith and began to fear the likelihood of being subjected to such harms. In the case of internet privacy loss, peoples’ perceptions of it seem to indicate that until people see actual harm resulting from privacy loss – i.e. friends and family members being denied leases or loans, being dissuaded from engaging in certain leisure activities, or worse – they most likely will continue on care free.


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r2 - 22 Mar 2017 - 03:20:41 - MichaelWright
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