Year over year, the amount of information we share with companies have grown, as have high-profile privacy concerns. In 2016, hackers are hardly the only ones out there interested in gaining deeper access to our personal information. Now we see major privacy challenges in the news from government and marketers, from Apple’s high-profile showdown with the U.S. government to the roll-out of “smart billboards” in major metropolitan markets.
So where does consumer privacy protection stand in 2016? What progress have we made in the effort to safeguard our right to privacy? Which forces may undermine our protection? What are our concerns now?
Flashback to 2012’s Consumer Bill of Rights
The White House, along with privacy advocates, could see the writing on the virtual wall in 2012. Americans were going to need more robust control and transparency when it came to the collection and use of their personal information. In response, the administration introduced the Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights. Four years later, the New York Times reports “Why a Push for Online Privacy is Bogged Down in Washington.” According to the article, enacting tangible, effective privacy controls has been met with resistance. Even victories such as “data disclosure charts” which provide consumers information about the information gathered and used by an app have come up against opposition. While Intuit rolled out the “nutrition label” style disclosures to their online apps, others such as ACT: The App Association cautioned developers it would open them up to liability, and went a different direction.
The Times goes on to highlight the primary tension: Advocates fear “unfettered commercial data collection could chill the daily routines of Americans” while private industry warns “restrictions on data collection could chill innovation.”
Both sides present compelling arguments, but for there to be forward progress some compromise must be made. As it stands, the current Congress appears unwilling to embrace more federal regulation, and privacy advocates have begun taking their case to the state level.
There is, however, a major showdown playing out between government and the private sector. Only in this instance, it’s the private sector which seems concerned about consumer privacy.
Privacy vs. Security and Apple vs. the F.B.I.
Historically, the greatest public privacy debate has not been about how companies collect and use our data. It’s been about how the government does. As the Pew Research Center documents in its article, “Americans feel the tensions between privacy and security concerns”, post-9/11 America has had an uneasy and shifting opinion about the balance between civil liberties and security. This is perhaps best demonstrated by Pew’s 2011 poll. From the article:
“In a poll conducted in 2011, shortly before the 10th anniversary of 9/11, 40% said that “in order to curb terrorism in this country it will be necessary for the average person to give up some civil liberties,” while 54% said it would not. A decade earlier, in the aftermath of 9/11 and before the passage of the Patriot Act, opinion was nearly the reverse (55% necessary, 35% not necessary).”
The divide can be stark, especially after the Snowden revelations about government surveillance:
“In an early 2015 online survey, 52% of Americans described themselves as “very concerned” or “somewhat concerned” about government surveillance of Americans’ data and electronic communications, compared with 46% who described themselves as “not very concerned” or “not at all concerned” about the surveillance.”
Whereas much of the information about how the government goes about gaining access to private information has been in the dark, today we have a real-time view into a landmark battle: Apple vs. the F.B.I.
Apple’s refusal to unlock an iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino terrorists has made encryption and the question of whether or not law enforcement should have “back door” access to devices at the forefront of a major privacy fight.
Tim Cook’s argument, supported by other tech titans such as Google and Facebook, is that compromising encryption in special circumstances for the government represents “the software equivalent of cancer.” The Apple CEO has presented Apple’s position in an open letter, and vowed to take the issue to the Supreme Court in an interview with ABC News.
Regardless of the outcome, the dispute between two giants in the private and government sector will raise the profile of privacy rights nationwide.
What are Consumer Concerns About Privacy Today?
Citizens may see a reasonable need for government surveillance, but as consumers, the TRUSTe Consumer Privacy Index reveals a much less trusting picture. According to the index, 92% of US internet users worry about their privacy online, and the top cause of concern is companies collecting and sharing their personal information.
For businesses, privacy should be a major concern, as 89% of those users surveyed say they avoid companies who do not protect their privacy and 74% say they have limited online activity due to privacy concerns.
Despite these concerns and evidence of trends toward disengagement online, there’s still a lot of work to be done when it comes to aligning concerns with behavior. Though 75% of Americans believe they adequately protect their personal data, remarkably low percentages have read privacy policies (16%), changed social media settings (29%), or turned off location tracking (29%).
Fortunately protecting your privacy and promoting the right to privacy is something we can all do. If you feel the right to privacy is a fundamental, human right, there are steps to take:
• When your understand our own values, you can apply awareness and wisdom to your privacy choices online.
• Ask questions about data collection. Take Senator Franken, who recently demanded that Clear Channel explain its data collecting billboards.
This is where we are in 2016, but remember: you are empowered to help decide where we’ll be in the future.