We took silly personality quizzes on Facebook Inc. that made Cambridge Analytica possible.
We bought phones that tracked our locations everywhere we went. We plugged in smart speakers that sent recordings of our most intimate moments to humans overseas for transcription. We downloaded apps and plug-ins with reckless abandon. We installed security cameras everywhere. We clicked through terms of services without reading. We agreed to do whatever it took to make those pesky red badges on our phones go away. We are complicit in the corporate surveillance state we inhabit.
That doesn’t mean we weren’t duped. Companies tempted us with their free services. They downplayed the risks. They broke promises to safeguard our data. They presented themselves as silly apps, only to become world-changing communications platforms. They hired psychologists to manipulate us. They used the money they made from our data to buy lobbyists to fight off privacy regulations.
The New York Times explained on Thursday just what it means to hand over the kind of location data collected by our smartphones. The newspaper painted a terrifying portrait of the self-imposed surveillance state: “Within America’s own representative democracy, citizens would surely rise up in outrage if the government attempted to mandate that every person above the age of 12 carry a tracking device that revealed their location 24 hours a day. Yet, in the decade since Apple’s App Store was created, Americans have, app by app, consented to just such a system run by private companies.”
If you’re paying attention, this is not surprising. The Times wrote an article with many of the same revelations almost exactly a year ago. Other publications have been doing similar work for years.
The 2010s should be remembered as the decade tech turned dystopian. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happened just as Washington was out to lunch. D.C. has been dysfunctional and divided, but politicians also agreed long ago that their default setting would be to allow innovation from private enterprises without question. Since Bill Clinton’s 1996 proclamation that the “era of big government is over,” corporations have gotten the benefit of the doubt. That has been particularly true of tech companies.
The new decade could be different, at least tonally. The ’20s will start with the enactment of America’s first sweeping privacy bill, the California Consumer Privacy Act. We’ll see where it goes from there, but government officials have the ability to regulate the markets where businesses sell or share our sensitive data. They can set restrictions on how long companies can retain that information, and how they can use it.
It’s an open question whether there’s the political will to do this, of course. Federal privacy legislation is stuck. Attempts to shape the law in California are hardly over, and other states have yet to adopt similar legislation. The companies with a stake in the status quo are now some of the most powerful private enterprises on earth.
No matter what happens, I don’t think humanity will ever be able to undo the decisions we made this decade. It’s too inconvenient to go backward, and we may have given up privacy for everyone going forward.
Technology companies moved fast and broke things. There may be no putting them back together.