I once had a job where the basement flooded. As we crept down the stairs with flashlights, cold water creeping up to our calves, pieces of paper floated past us sticking as they went. Peering down we could see certificates of title. Each document protecting someone’s ownership of their home and property.
We forget that information and data is usually about someone. It is not something which can be easily sold or destroyed. The latest OAIC survey of Australians asked us to consider what the word privacy means to us.
The most common interpretation, “the idea of keeping one’s information private and confidential” was high on the list. Interestingly, so were more complex concepts such as “the right to security and respect”, and “the idea of living free from interference and maintaining one’s lawful right to be left alone”.
A whopping 97% of Australians consider privacy important when choosing a digital service and 70% see the protection of personal information as a major concern in their life. There is major disjunct occurring between how we want our information to be treated and its ability to be commodified by technology.
Commodification is about more than selling. In 2017, the Australian reported on a leaked Facebook presentation to advertisers which used the concept of anticipatory emotions in teens to target advertising by days of the week. By monitoring emotions, the service would determine exactly when to provide a “confidence boost” presumably through a targeted service or product. As Wylie stated when leaking the Cambridge Analytica scandal, models are being built to exploit what is known about people and to target their inner demons.
As new technology such as the Internet of Things and AI ramps up the commodification of information, the clash of expectations appears to be intensifying. 83% of Australians consider a personal device listening to their conversations and sharing it without their knowledge a misuse. 84% believe that Australians have a right to know if a decision impacting them is made by AI technology and 82% believe they should have the right to have a human review any decision made using A1 technology, even if it costs the organization money.
So why is the commodification of personal information important? Ultimately, it is about the type of society we wish to live in. Privacy advocates argue that privacy is a public good which grants individuals the agency and autonomy necessary to support a democratic society. That newer forms of technology such as facial recognition software and data matching increase inequality and impact unfairly on the most vulnerable in society. They argue that the human futures market sale of algorithmic predictions on human behaviour is a fundamentally unethical practice which should be stopped.