Cambridge Analytica suggests digital privacy is a collective issue

Facebook lost a lot of the public’s trust in 2018, when it was revealed early in the year that it shares large numbers of users’ messages and other personal data with firms like Cambridge Analytica.

This revelation and Edward Snowden’s 2013 leaking of classified National Security Agency documents were landmark moments that opened the door to new debates about privacy and transparency. Before last year’s scandal, people were aware that Facebook and other web-based companies collect information but not quite to the extent that was reported.

According to BGSU communications professor Clayton Rosati, the idea of “individual” privacy is a bit of an illusion. In his words, all the private information we store in hotel rewards clubs, personal contacts or photos on mobile phones is on shared infrastructure that can be hacked by individuals, governments, subpoenaed, etc.

“We’re all in the same boat that way. So, in that sense, the problem of privacy is collective, not individual — it’s public not simply private,” he said.

A popular question that comes with the topic of privacy is how much people have to fear if they have nothing to hide. On the surface this seems to be a simple question with a simple answer, but there are plenty of possible scenarios that muddy the waters. People can have good and legitimate reasons to hide items or information without implying that they’ve done anything wrong, like in cases of secret ballots.

“We keep our vote secret, not because we did something wrong but because someone may use it against us or persecute us for our choices or beliefs,” Rosati said.

Freshman social work major Hannah Hess thinks the principle is generally correct, but people should still be able to choose what content of theirs is available for others to access.

“Just because you have nothing to hide doesn’t mean that you should have to bear it all for everyone to see. That’s a very individual choice,” she said.

Like Hess, freshman psychology and sociology double major Noah Waymire is skeptical of the notion that the principle is air-tight. Even if someone’s digital footprint is free of material they may find embarrassing or compromising, other people may think otherwise of it.

“If you have nothing to hide then you have nothing to hide, but I feel like if there are people out there who really want to get to you and make it hurt in certain ways, they will find something they can use against you,” he said.

The broader debate behind this issue is about whether digital privacy should be considered a right or a privilege. The Forbes.com article “Is Digital Privacy A Right Or A Privilege?” infers that the issue of private companies and the government holding too much power over the privacy of individuals is not as bad as it sounds, but it has the potential to become that way. Author Steve Andriole maintains that explicit permission from internet service providers and media companies to collect data and the ability to get benefits from it being collected would be good to rebuild trust.

There is no easy separation between government surveillance and data collection from entities like Facebook, even if it’s highly questionable, Rosati said.

“Edward Snowden revealed how blurred this line is by exposing the NSA’s Prism program, which allowed them to collect data directly from tech firm’s own servers. Again, in the wrong hands our consumer data economy and government surveillance apparatus, which are now inseparable, are key part of a recipe for tyranny,” Rosati said.