As the Home Secretary today signs a letter demanding facebook rethink our right to private conversations on its site, Senior Consultant Charlotte Chung asks who is watching and does it matter?

This week, Atlas presented us all with a small gift – celebrated as one of the most unhackable security devices on the market – the camera shield. It may be small and humble, but it tells us a lot about our relationship with technology, and the regulatory and policy journey we continue to career through to get the balance right between data privacy and meeting consumer demands.

What may have started out as an act of paranoia (who tapes over their webcam?!) has contributed to a multi-billion-pound data protection market. When the FBI Director admits he tapes over his webcam, you do it too! Three years on, the debate over whether you can trust your favourite modern-day devices – now with friendly voices like Alexa and Siri – to not spy on you is getting fiercer and more complex. Increased anxiety over whether, in the age of the Internet of Things, your toaster isn’t secretly sending coded messages via your smart fridge to some nefarious entity has captured the imagination of many a fiction writer. You’ve seen that episode of Black Mirror, right?

So, you know what songs I like – what’s the big deal?

While, in reality, most people don’t believe it’s a sinister conspiracy where Google is deliberately listening in (look at upward sales for smart devices for homes) there is a serious concern that, in opting into an ever more connected existence, we are making ourselves more vulnerable to criminals. Instead of breaking down our back doors, they crack our passcodes by hacking into our daily devices.

On a more fundamental level, there are bigger questions on who has access to our personal data and, more to the point, whether we care? The view from experts in the field has not all been of concern and condemnation – some believe the risk of someone “getting hold of some unflattering shot of you lounging around in your pants” (actual quote!) is a price worth paying for the ability to have ‘face-to-face’ conversations with loved ones across the world. But what if the same law that protects your private conversations, protects the child pornographer too? Perhaps you’re okay with governments demanding access to audio recordings or messages, because we should all be law-abiding citizens anyway. Arguments about balancing privacy and public safety are going to dominate society in the coming decades.  

It does sound a bit scary – what’s being done about it

It takes international co-ordination to achieve any kind of tangible impact on what is a global debate. The latest move is a joint UK, US and Australian effort. And the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation – we all had the training, right?! – raised the bar for how individuals data needed to be safeguarded. No, I don’t want to be on your mailing list and now there will be legally enforceable consequences.

Industry, led by the big household tech names, has been forthright in its response – setting out how their devices work, often in geekery-level detail, to reassure us that while Siri might be always ‘on’ it only uses recordings activated by ‘watch words’ so that it is able to respond. Of course, how reassuring this is depends on how you define privacy. And, in a move that truly demonstrates how to ‘lean-in’ to a perceived weakness, privacy has been flipped on its head to become one of the key selling points for big tech brands including Apple and Facebook. We’re in the twilight-zone when Zuckerberg talks earnestly about data protection, but this is the sign of times to come.

The future is bright, the future is data – now fight over it

The Cambridge Analytica scandal and Facebook data hack last year has pulled back the curtains to show us that data is power – one that can be harvested, marketed and traded. A realisation that will continue to shape the future of the data industry. We’re moving beyond ‘freemium’ models operated by global platforms, where individuals’ data is traded for access to services. Companies are creating new products that put consumers in the driving seat over how their data is used, rented out and sold. For some, this is a more honest and transparent model than current transactions. For others, a slippery slope that erodes privacy as a fundamental right. With a Netflix documentary and court actions in the UK and US, will we all start to argue that “data rights are human rights”? Or will we decide it’s too complicated to care about?

Who owns the solution?

Beyond how we protect privacy while ensuring consumer and market freedoms, future debates will also focus on whose responsibility this is.

Consumer apathy aside, Tech companies are under increased pressure to answer charges on creating data monopolies – including data that is indirectly harvested via our location history, browsing activity, what products we use etc – or manipulating our behaviours and choices through a series of nudge techniques on how information is displayed and communicated. Brands need to actively and explicitly demonstrate how they are protecting our privacy. The future of the data industry will be littered with jargon like ‘Ethical AI’, Privacy by Design’ and ‘Technology with Inbuilt Trust’.

Governments by and large have been slow to put forward robust proposals on how to address these complex issues looming on the horizon. It was telling that at the party conferences that have just come to a close for another year, ‘data’ featured just once in the titles of the hundreds of fringe events and ‘privacy’ did not feature at all. Although, audiences did ask questions of the expert panels on this subject.

It’s becoming increasingly apparent that privacy solutions need to be addressed on a global scale – after all, the internet is borderless. In a bold pushback this year to the increased calls for self-regulation, Facebook asked governments around the world to reach international consensus on how to police the digital world, otherwise risking a ‘Balkanised’ internet.

In the meantime, with this growing intrusion into our private lives, some consumers are choosing to literally pull the plug - many a smug status has appeared (on Facebook, usually) about no longer being on social media platforms…like Facebook. Sales of ‘dumb phones’ (think classic Nokia 3310) have gone up, in a trend that goes beyond retro-aesthetics, as people ditch their smartphones. But what if you can’t quite bring yourself to stick two fingers up to the tech gods? Well, the camera shield is a good start. At least we’ll be able to practice flossing via a YouTube tutorial safe in the knowledge that no one is watching. Thanks, Atlas!