I wrote my Honors thesis on the societal impacts of encryption – the mathematical procedures by which individual and societal data is protected – and the challenges facing privacy today. An individual’s privacy varies widely based on where in the world they live. In Europe, companies are prohibited from collecting private information without express consent from an individual – data is private by default. Most everywhere else in the world, however, individual information is public by default – indeed, the Chinese government can access the private data of any Apple user in the country. However, excessive public or private surveillance is not limited to autocratic governments like China or Russia. In Canada, firms and law enforcement have collected facial biometric data – without regulation. In most of the world, the law has failed to keep pace with emerging automated technologies, and the individual privacy is suffering as a result.
While many nations lack sufficient regulation of advanced machine learning technologies and data collection services, I believe the most terrifying examples of systemic overreach emerge from China. Facial recognition software is becoming ubiquitous across China, and using their remarkable ability to surveil their populace, the government is implementing a “social credit score.” While there may be arguments for why such a system is helpful, I believe that deliberately restricting one’s freedoms (e.g., preventing the purchasing of plane tickets) for violating accepted norms (e.g., speaking out against the government) is antithetical to the society we should seek to create.
Data privacy should be a pivotal issue for everyone – it’s not a question of whether you “have anything to hide.” Indeed, the foundation of the modern digital world is privacy – you couldn’t shop remotely without it. Data security is an international issue because, unlike your car, food, or any other physical good, data is not guarded by borders or proximity. As Ambassador Lambramidis noted in his address at OU, privacy and personal freedoms and rights are the cornerstones of a democratic society. There are examples from across the world of failures to respect those cornerstones – and these failures demand responses. Privacy cannot be optional, especially in the automated age in which we live.