How can Americans take control of their digital privacy?

The year 2018 saw an unending stream of news reports about data breaches, social manipulation, and the sheer volume of personal data that tech giants mine for information about us. For wary social media users and digital consumers, these findings raised serious concerns about how their information is gathered, used, and protected.

“Users have spent much of 2018 trying to weigh whether the benefits of social media — chiefly, maintaining connections with friends — outweigh the privacy cost,” Axios wrote last month after revelations that Facebook had been sharing users’ data with abandon. “But each day fresh evidence piles up in the cost column even as the benefits have held steady.”

As citizens, activists, and lawmakers call for reform and seek to hold tech giants accountable for their missteps, consumers are left wondering what they can do now, under America’s current laws, to take control of how their personal data is collected and used.

To help answer this question, Grassroots Pulse spoke with Ashkhen Kazaryan, Director of Civil Liberties at TechFreedom.

Be vigilant and self-educate

Kazaryan told Grassroots Pulse that consumers, contrary to popular perception, actually have a lot of control about how their data is used and stored — if they are willing to take the time to be vigilant and self-educate.

To begin, Kazaryan recommends a simple two-step process. First, she says, figure out your priorities. Take time to think about and research what personal information you might have online. This could be anything from basic pieces of information like your phone number and email address to photos of you, your purchasing history, or your location tracked by a mapping application. The availability of your information both to the public and to technology companies and businesses should be based on your own personal preferences and comfort levels. Some people, for instance, have a public email that they’ll post on a website and a private email that they share more carefully with friends and family. Similarly, one person may actually enjoy targeted ads on Facebook, but not want Google to keep a record of their search history. It all depends on one’s individual preferences.

The second step, Kazaryan says, is to tailor your privacy settings according to your preferences. This can go as deep and as thorough as one would like. Under the current regulatory framework in the U.S., the FTC and state attorneys general will go after a company if it abuses user data or uses it illegally, so despite recent revelations by Facebook, for example, that they were sharing users’ information, companies by and large actually take care to comply with current laws. The result is that the majority of platforms and content holders have a mechanism by which one’s personal data can be deleted, and the consumer has the final say on whether to use it.

“When you ask that directly, they are required to do so,” Kazaryan says.

She also notes that Facebook, Google, and every other tech giant has a tab on their platforms called “privacy settings,” which users can use to do everything from hide posted photos to stop their search history from being recorded.

“It’s not always, ‘Oh, you have to go to court, or you have to go to the agency.’ That’s such a long process,” she says. “I think there are faster avenues of reaching your goal (for digital privacy).”

Sometimes this simply means complaining to the company and sharing your experience. Kazaryan cites a story last month about a woman who had a stillborn baby yet continued seeing ads for baby products on Facebook. Unsurprisingly, she found this experience traumatizing and inappropriate for the platform to allow. When she shared her story online it went viral, and Facebook actually responded and fixed its advertising algorithm.

If complaining to the company doesn’t work, Kazaryan recommends reaching out to the Better Business Bureau, a non-government, nonprofit organization that evaluates businesses and acts as an advocate for consumers seeking more ethical business practices. While the Better Business Bureau admittedly has no legally enforceable authority, it offers a type of internal arbitration that is free for consumers.

“It’s a market pressure that I think people forget about, says Kazaryan. “It can pressure companies to do better and be nicer to you.”

Kazaryan herself says she has complained to the Better Business Bureau and succeeded in pressuring companies to comply with her demands even though they initially refused to delete personal information they had gathered about her.

“It works,” Kazaryan says, “you just have to be vigilant, and you have to invest your time.”

2019: the year of privacy reform?

Concerns about protecting consumers’ digital privacy inevitably raise policy questions as well, and Kazaryan expects that federal privacy legislation will be one of the main topics in the tech policy world in 2019. Congress has held numerous hearings with leaders from Facebook, Google, and other tech giants over the past year and appears to be preparing to act on the issue.

“When it comes to privacy, I think there’s no real party divide, there’s just a lack of actual knowledge about the issue, Kazaryan says. “So I’m just concerned that people don’t try to jump and get a ‘GDPR-plus’ or some kind of overregulation on the federal level.”

In a federal consumer data privacy bill, Kazaryan hopes to see principals and provisions that offer guidance to states and legislators about key questions regarding the values surrounding digital privacy, and the mechanisms we want those values to be protected with.

She also hopes that any federal reform legislation includes the preemption of state law, such as the consumer privacy bill passed by California last year that is slated to go into effect at the beginning of 2020.

“I think bills like the California privacy bill are absolutely disastrous, and if they go into effect they will harm the economy,” says Kazaryan. “It will fragment the digital economy. It will not really help with digital privacy.”

A patchwork of laws differing from state to state, she says, would open a Pandora’s box of questions for online retailers and social media platforms. How could a mom and pop shop selling a specialized product online, for instance, ever hope to comply with dozens of state laws? Or if someone using a social media platform moved from one state to another, what would happen to their data?

“All those questions will just blow up,” says Kazaryan, noting that such an environment would hurt small businesses and startups the most because the big companies have enough money and resources and lawyers to comply with a fragmented regulatory framework.

“It’s kind of scary,” she says. “It would be the Wild West of digital privacy.”

For more information about taking control of your own digital privacy preferences, here are a few links to get started:

Image Credit: “Businesswoman, Workstation” by axelle b is licensed under CC0 1.0

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