Choosing Convenience Over Privacy is a Disastrous Digital Decision
by Dr. Lisa Strohman J.D., PhD
Manipulating society into social media dependence was both insidiously and brilliantly devised. The ease, convenience, and enjoyment of socially connecting to others — which is a natural and necessary part of being human — faced no resistance.
No matter how much we learn about its downsides, such as stealing our most private thoughts and actions, or exposing our children to images they are unprepared for, social media continues to grow — and with little friction. Let’s face it: social media is too convenient for us to reject it. Add in a pandemic forcing people to stay indoors with little else to do and you have a perfect storm that emboldens the owners of these connective platforms to mold and direct the minds of users in ways few understand. To understand fully this unrecognized battle, the following lessons are necessary:
First, we must acknowledge that we are choosing convenience over privacy. We can rant about our privacy and those things violating it (Internet platforms should not be able to own our metrics and sell them to the highest bidder”) but if we continue to use these platforms as they are, how upset can we be? Either you punish the platform owners by rejecting its use until there are real changes, or your voice will be nothing more than the tree falling in the forest that does not make a sound.
Second, knowledge is power. Yes, it is trite . . . but it is also true. Handing a device, such as a phone, over to your children without educating them (or yourself) about what the device does, and the dangers it can expose you to is misguided, and perhaps, even negligent. Explain this to your children so they understand it is a tool, and if used improperly (like a car) it will be taken away.
Third, understanding how industry control is influencing your decisions returns control of your choices back to you. For instance, have you ever thought about how nice it is to go to the App store and find something you need? It is not unlike going to the grocery store. App stores offer consumers apps they have determined will sell. However, have you ever stopped to consider what isn’t offered in the app store? Are you aware that the tech industry has full control over what apps we even see? This is not only frustrating, but dangerous as well. In the past few years, the tech industry has stripped a majority of the parenting apps that monitor what children can and cannot do on their phones because the apps apparently “violate their terms of service”. However, the real reason the tech industry eliminated those apps from their stores is because those apps were reducing children’s access to their products and restricting children’s time on their devices. So what do you find on the app stores instead? Popular, money making, data grabbing apps that allow the tech industry to have more and more of your personal information that they can then sell, or in some cases, even monetize off in-app purchases. Fortnite is a recent example of what happens when you don’t play by their rules. In August 2020 Apple terminated Epic Games account from their App Store after a legal battle started over in-app payments on the Fortnite game. Apple had just deleted Fortnite from their store after the game offered a discount for its virtual currency for purchases that were made outside of the app, which reduced Apple’s cut by 30%.
Fourth, is the world of “Reward Apps”, which exist in every store whether the store is online or conventional. Sure, they’ll save shoppers a small amount of money at checkout, but in exchange for that savings, buyers provide the stores with massive amounts of data that are repackaged and sold to third party companies. Incredibly, they can also use it to track where you spend the most time inside of the store, which stores you typically shop at, and even in some cases whether you attend church, sporting events, concerts, etc. Once you ‘agree’ to terms they can pretty much attach any sort of tracking information to your computer they want.
Fifth, is the “Metadata” that attaches to every photo and video upload. We all enjoy sending our friends and family updates on life, particularly during this pandemic when we are all isolated and trying to establish a new normal. But are you aware of how these platforms that offer the convenience of sending images use our data? SnapChat, Instagram, and TikTok all have nearly the same privacy terms, stating that you can use its platform, but that EVERYTHING you do on the platform is subject to them having a global license to sell, distribute, or modify it at any point. (This is only a paraphrase of a typical privacy term, but if you are interested in reading the exact wording, simply visit any heir sites. Here is the link to SnapChat’s US Privacy Policies as an example) There are more than 460 metadata tags within the exchangeable image file format for digital images, which can include image size, location data, a smaller thumbnail of the image, and even the make and model of the camera.
Many of you will feel that the convenience of our current online world is more important than any concerns over privacy. Most of us feel we have nothing to hide or to worry about in our day-to-day interactions. However, with the state of the world today, chronic assaults on our digital decisions (no matter how many years ago they may have occurred) we must consider whether the concept of privacy isn’t just about our contemporaneous posts, but also about whether we have the ability to control our own narrative in the future. Controversial? Of course it is. Having choice over our own digital footprint, essentially having the right to privacy, seems impossible, but is definitely achievable. It is time to demand more from Big Tech and insist that we be treated as more than data.