Black Friday is a good reminder that that in order to protect our privacy as well as minimize the use of personal data to influence our ability to make free choices, there needs to be a change in consumers’ habits as well as increased digital literacy.
November has turned into a major shopping spree for Israeli consumers, running from Singles’ Day (a Chinese invention) through the Black Friday sales and on to Cyber Monday. Many of the products sold are smart and electronic gadgets.
For example, there is a robotic vacuum cleaner that photographs your home as it sucks up the dirt, in order to identify the location of walls and furniture so as to optimize the cleaner’s path and allow us to follow its progress from afar. The information the robo-vac collects on the job can reveal quite a bit about us: for example, where the children’s bedroom is (that’s where it bumps into lots of toys and Lego pieces), our income level, and our typical behavior patterns. The smart sports watch counts our steps and the calories we burn, but it also collects substantial medical data. Even the smart teddy bear we bought for our children, which amuses them with hours of interactive play, is listening, recording, and processing every word uttered nearby.
Advertisers have long since learned the value of personal information about consumers. Various techniques are used to figure out our financial status and to identify our character traits, sexual preferences, moods, emotional weaknesses, and even the most effective hour to hit us with an ad for a particular product.
But the masses of personal information collected about us can be used for other purposes as well. For example, insurance companies can use it to assess our health and price their policies accordingly; a potential employer could rely on it to determine our professional and mental suitability for the job we are applying for.
In recent years, techniques from the world of advertising have even been used to influence citizens’ political views. The Cambridge Analytics affair for example, involved an attempt to identify people suffering from anxiety and expose them to propaganda that would persuade them to stay home on Election Day. Increasing use of personal data in order to analyze personality traits and influence consumers’ ideas in pursuit of political advantage, poses a real danger to every citizen’s rightto exercise free choice.
Current legislation does not provide adequate protection against such a severe assault on our right to privacy. In Israel, the Privacy Law merely requires that individuals give informed consent for using their personal data, and most of us do so almost without thinking about it. Even the new European Union Data Protection regulations cannot provide full protection to the citizens of its member states. There too it suffices for individuals to give their consent to allow political parties to collect and use data about them, although the regulations do expand individuals’ rights and provide them with various tools to regain some control of the information collected about them. For example, in some situations they can invoke the right to be forgotten and demand that the information be deleted from the data-collector’s servers.
In Israel, updating the Privacy Protection Law is not enough in order to minimize the use of personal data to influence our ability to make free choices. There also needs to be a change in consumers’ habits, increased digital literacy, and internalization of the idea that before we buy a product we must consider not only its price and quality but also the personal data it collects about us and how that will be exploited. When buying products that collect data about us, we should prefer those whose manufacturers do not store our information, retain information for a limited time period only, or store information on the product itself rather than transmitting it to the manufacturer’s servers. Otherwise, if we continue our current mad rush to buy smart products, without demanding that their manufacturers provide adequate safeguards and make minimal use of our personal information, the November sales best-seller will be, quite simply, our right to privacy.
The article was published in the Jerusalem Post.