Recent news that the personal information of tens of millions of people was used by Cambridge Analytica “to create algorithms aimed at ‘breaking’ American democracy” as the New Yorker phrases it, has led to a call to #DeleteFacebook. For those unfamiliar with the story, our friends at AccessNow wrote a great summary.
This kind of invasion of privacy is not new, nor is it limited to this case. The old expression, “No free lunch,” applies to any service that we don’t pay for, whether it is social media or a discount card at the grocery store or entering a raffle to win a new car. The true cost is allowing those companies to access our personal information for their own profit.
Safety is the primary concern. For survivors who face threats of harm, who live daily in fear from the abusers, the security of personal information can be a life and death issue. For survivors fleeing an abuser, information about location, work, kids’ schools, and social connections can lead an abuser to the doorstep. For survivors living with abuse, information about friends, thoughts, feelings, opinions, and interests can be misused by an abuser to control, isolate, or humiliate.
For survivors, privacy is not an abstract issue, or a theoretical right to be debated on CSPAN. Privacy is essential to safety, to dignity, to independence. Yet, we live in a time when personal information = profit.
The Cambridge Analytica story surfaces the underlying reality that our personal information is not under our control. It feels like we are seldom asked for consent to share our personal data. When we are, it is in legalese, in tiny letters that we might have to scroll through to be able to check that box, and get on with using whatever website we’re trying to use. Even if we do take the time to read through those privacy terms, we know that data is routinely stolen, or accidentally published on the Internet, or used against us to affect access to loans, insurance, employment, and services.
We are social animals. We crave connection. Research shows that we suffer without it. Isolation is a classic tactic of abuse. But the price we too often pay for connection online is our privacy.
At times like these, we may think about deleting Facebook, going offline, or throwing away our phones. We may think that survivors should give up their tech at the door of our shelters, or that they have to go off the grid in order to be safe.
Digital exile is not the answer. Technology, and the Internet, is a public space where everyone, including survivors, should have the right, to share their voices, to make connections, and to access information without fear of their personal information being collected and used without their consent. April Glaser writes in Slate that, “[d]eleting Facebook is a privilege,” pointing to the huge number of people that rely on it to connect with friends, to learn about events, to promote a business, or, in parts of the world with limited Internet access, just to be online at all.
Survivors, just like every other consumer, should be given the opportunity to give truly informed consent. That consent must be based on clear, simple, meaningful, understandable privacy policies and practices – not just a check box that no one pays attention to.
A guide to the process of changing your Facebook settings to control apps’ access to your data is available from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Also check out our own guides to Online Privacy and Facebook Privacy and Safety.