Opinion | You Should Be Freaking Out About Privacy
We’ve published a lot of stories in the last year about privacy. Like, a lot. And almost every time we do, we hear a version of the same thing. “It amazes me how often I hear from people, I have nothing to hide. I have nothing to fear from people spying on me.” “I think I’m a law-abiding citizen, so I’m not so worried about it. Send what you’ve got, Big Brother.” In a yearlong series, we’ve shown you how your privacy is being invaded at an industrial scale. “You are followed 24/7, 365 days a year.” “Everything you do is being watched.” I mean, even we’re doing it to you right now. Despite that, you haven’t gone through the settings on your phone, have you? You probably don’t use a VPN, and I know you don’t read the terms and conditions before clicking Accept. But while you’re busy not thinking about it, your private information is being raided, traded and used against you in terrifying ways. “I was shocked. We should be very scared.” So ask yourself this: How much of your private information are you really comfortable giving away? “Let me look on the internet. They’ll know I’m searching for it.” In this video, we’re going to test your privacy comfort level. Seriously, where is your red line? “They know a lot more about you than you may even know about yourself.” Because there’s a lot more at stake than you think, and time is running out to do anything about it. “So you think you have nothing to hide? You ain’t seen nothing yet.” “Wow, I didn’t even think about that.” “Open up Budweiser and pour yourself the most inviting glass of beer you’ve ever tasted.” For a long time, advertising was an art of guesswork. The madmen could only hope that you were thirsty. But now, they can tell exactly how you’re feeling. To show you what I mean, I want to tell you about a little experiment we did. He’s our guinea pig. “Hi.” His name is Farhad Manjoo. “I’m an opinion columnist at The New York Times and I write about technology.” And at the start of the year, he volunteered. “Well, I was asked to volunteer to have all of my information tracked and then, you know, publish all that in the newspaper.” Using a special browser, we were able to see what websites Farhad visited. But more importantly, what those websites could see about him. “So I started the day on Google and did a search. And nine trackers were downloaded onto my computer.” Yes, trackers. These are tiny text files or even just a pixel sometimes. And, “Trackers do what it sounds like they do. They track you. They can get my I.P. address or the device I’m using or the screen size. They were able to determine my location very precisely. Next, I went to HuffPo, and I was swarmed. The trackers kind of multiplied. There were dozens and dozens.” Every site Farhad visited, the trackers followed him. “Washington Post, Google, Vanity Fair.” By the way, you know all of this is happening to you right now, don’t you? as you’re watching this video? You’re just not supposed to know about it. “And they’re just — the trackers are just kind of, you know, on my heels as I go around the web.” O.K., so different companies know the model of your phone. Big deal. Well, it gets worse. With all of your private data, the trackers send it away to “Mostly advertising companies.” So there’s this gigantic digital marketplace where your personal information is auctioned off to advertisers. Your data’s like one of these tuna, except instead of humans arguing over you, it’s algorithms. It all happens in a split second, every time you load a web page. “The fact that parts of me are being bought and sold in this marketplace is very creepy.” The companies say this data is all scattered into many little pieces and so it stays anonymous. But in buying and selling to each other, the companies can assemble those pieces and begin to build complete profiles of you. “They can have kind of almost direct access to your subconscious.” And that’s where this gets kind of dark. Where companies once had to hope you were in the mood to buy, now they can use your data to predict your mood and take advantage of it. Would you be O.K. if a company could tell you were depressed because of the food you just ordered? Or if your health insurance provider could raise your premiums because it knew you skipped too many days at the gym? What about if your ride-share app was monitoring your phone’s battery? There’s nothing stopping them from using that information to jack up prices when you’re low on juice and most desperate for a ride. The companies have all of this information about you, and legally. I mean, you agreed to it in those terms and conditions you didn’t read. It’s nothing short of mind control. “I often wonder when I’m using a site like Facebook, whether the thoughts I’m having are independent thoughts. Like, was it my idea to go to this place for a vacation, or was it Facebook’s idea?” If being tracked by a beer company doesn’t cross the line for you, let’s see how you feel when we take it up a level. “Police departments use modern science to protect you, such as teletype, photography.” The technology the police are using these days, well, it’s gotten a bit more sophisticated than this. This next story starts in Bryant Park, Midtown New York, on a Tuesday lunchtime. “That day was a typical late winter day.” Well, not that typical. Our New York Times Opinion reporters were busy collecting footage from the public webcams in the park. We ran it through facial recognition software, and that software, it scans nearly 3,000 faces in the footage and matched them against a collection of publicly available images. And it didn’t take long to find a match. “That is me.” For this guy. “I’m Dr. Richard Madonna. I’m a professor at the SUNY College of Optometry. I had an email and a voice mail from The New York Times. What it said was, were you in Bryant Park last Tuesday at 1 o’clock? So I went to my calendar, and sure enough, it said, 1 o’clock, Bryant Park Grill.” In case you’re wondering, all of this is legal, and the software cost us less than $100 on Amazon. “That was a little spooky.” Now anyone can collect the biometric information of members of the public and dig into their lives. “There was a picture of the side of my head taken from above. Clearly, it was enough to identify with my website picture, which was actually taken probably six or seven years ago.” Now, maybe this is news to you, but law enforcement agencies figured this out 20 years ago. Today, they’ve got access to photographs of tens of millions of Americans. Images they run against descriptions of suspects thousands of times a year. Researchers have told us there’s a 50-50 chance your face is in that database. So what happens when someone who looks a bit like you commits a crime? Does it bother you that the photo from your driver’s license puts you in an infinite police lineup? Do public spaces feel the same when you know you can’t escape surveillance? Now, obviously, this technology comes with potential benefits, like catching criminals. But never before have law enforcement agencies had powers like this. And right now, there’s no legislation that puts a limit on it. So have we reached your comfort level yet? Maybe you are O.K. with companies manipulating your emotions and your face being in a police database. Fine. But let’s try taking this up just one more level. This guy knew what it was like to live under constant surveillance. For more than a decade, F.B.I. agents dug into his private life, wiretapped his home and his hotel rooms. Except, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. was no criminal. He was just advocating for civil rights. The government didn’t like that, so they went looking for information to discredit him. “Governments have always been looking at people. That’s not something that’s new.” This is Kara Swisher, by the way. “I’m a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times and I’m a longtime technology journalist. Anytime the government can overreach in terms of surveilling citizenry, they have done in the history of the world.” And the last time? It wasn’t that long ago. “New details on that whistle-blower who leaked top-secret documents —” “Uncovering a massive government surveillance program of phone records and internet use —” “When you call Grandma in Nebraska, the N.S.A. knows.” “You know, a lot of people were surprised that the government was surveilling its citizens so extensively. I wasn’t. What I think was surprising about what this stuff that Edward Snowden revealed was how extensive the government’s surveillance was.” Extensive? The government had spent a whole decade reading the metadata on your emails, your texts and your phone calls. “There’s an expression: Why rob a bank? Well, that’s where the money is. There’s never been a time in history when more information about you was available because of information you willingly give up.” And this hasn’t stopped, by the way. The Patriot Act, which contains all these powers, was quietly renewed again at the end of 2019. “Can you imagine today, the ability to track Martin Luther King just if he had a cellphone, just if he appeared at a hotel, just if he moved through the world?” Just imagine today’s surveillance technology in the hands of J. Edgar Hoover’s F.B.I. They could have identified protesters, published their names and intimidated them, all to keep them from marching in the streets. And as crazy as it seems, America might still look a lot more like this. This is why your privacy matters. Surveillance is a means of control and suppression. “Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania. Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado. Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.” So how do you feel now? Did any of that cross a line for you? I hope so. But do you know what? Your personal comfort level isn’t actually the most important thing here. This goes way beyond just you or me. Together as a society, we need to draw a line in the sand. Otherwise companies, law enforcement and the government will keep pushing past it. “You know, in reality, there is no line. There is very little kind of legal limit, and we don’t have a lot of moral or ethical boundaries about this stuff.” “There’s actually no right to privacy in the U.S. Constitution, even though people in this country do think they have one.” Bills are already making their way through Congress, but it’s hard to imagine we’ll get real privacy protections when tech companies spend tens of millions lobbying our government. “How are we striking this balance between the need to keep the American people safe and our concerns about privacy? Because there are some trade-offs involved.” People in power want you to believe that your privacy is something you have to compromise in order to be safe, but it’s not impossible to have both at the same time. So how about this? We demand lawmakers pass a Privacy Bill of Rights, a document that enshrines our right to choose what information is public and what remains ours. First, it should declare that privacy is essential to democracy and liberty. Next, it must give you, me and everyone the ability to discover who is using our data and how. And finally, it must declare that our privacy is not something that can be traded in exchange for free access to a social media app or a phone. If you and I don’t stand up for our rights to privacy now, we will find ourselves sleepwalking into mass surveillance. And even if you do have nothing to hide, that affects you, too. “Everybody has secrets.” “Even if everything you do is perfectly legal and on the up and up and you don’t have anything to hide, when you know you’re being watched, I think you subconsciously change your behavior, and it has this kind of chilling effect.” That’s what’s really at stake here, our freedom to speak and act and think how we want. A society of surveillance is just one step away from a society of submission.