Traditional concepts of privacy — our right to be left alone — and the basic principle that the content of our communications should remain confidential — are being challenged and eroded with advancements in digital technology. Similarly, the fundamental principle that individuals should be able to control when their personal data is collected by third parties and how it is used is nearly impossible to implement in a world where personal data is collected, created, used, processed, analyzed, shared, transferred, copied, and stored in unprecedented ways and at an extraordinary speed and volume. This includes the collection and creation of unprecedented volumes of personal data from an ever-increasing number of connected devices – smartphones, smartwatches, other wearable devices, smart toys, connected cars, drones, personal assistants like the Amazon echo, etc. This Internet of Things — the network of physical objects, or “things,” embedded with electronics, software, sensors, and connectivity to enable objects to collect and exchange data — is expected to expand from an estimated 8.4 billion devices in 2017 to a projected 20.4 billion in 2020.
So what happens to our personal data, identity, reputation, and privacy in this digital, connected world? Unclear. Our privacy laws in the United States are based on antiquated notions of notice and choice, and are completely inadequate to address this rapid evolution in technology, computer science, and artificial intelligence. Although Congress is now debating new Federal privacy legislation, I’m not optimistic that policymakers will be able to craft a law that will address these issues in a meaningful way — if they can create any law at all. There are too many stakeholders involved in the debate, each protecting their own economic self interest and competitive advantage in the marketplace. And the issues are complex. Add to this the pathetic fact that companies in 2019 can’t seem to protect or secure any data, much less our sensitive personal data.
That said, we’re making progress. A series of high profile scandals in 2018 have ignited the privacy debate and put a spotlight on irresponsible business practices. Trust in the tech giants like Facebook is way down, and consumer frustration is way up. Despite my pessimism about the prospect for a federal privacy law, our policymakers are taking this debate seriously and exploring a wide range of solutions. Some of these are even meaningful solutions. On top of that, individuals do have some control over our online privacy, identity, and reputation. We need to engage more, make better informed decisions, use privacy settings and tools, and hold companies accountable when they misuse our data and violate our trust. New privacy laws in Europe and California are advancing this debate, and new technologies are being developed to help individuals better protect their privacy.
As we debate privacy, we also shouldn’t forget that all of this new tech produces enormous benefits for our society – from curing diseases to easing traffic and reducing pollution. The question before us is, can we promote innovation and the many benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution while limiting the potential harm to society, including the loss of privacy and individual autonomy? I’m not sure, but I plan to keep fighting to protect our privacy, online and offline.