Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or the Institute for Economic and Racial Equity.
Lisa Thorn, MPP candidate
Protecting our data privacy is essential to protecting our freedom and democracy. In a world where our lives are lived online and on public display, surveillance is commonplace. Digital platforms know where we go, who we’re with, what we read, what we say, how we act, and are used to predict our behavior. Our online activity is packaged and sold to marketers, politicians, and law enforcement officers who target groups of people for profit. Immigrants are tracked and deported, Black people are criminalized, women’s bodies are policed, and data brokers—fueled by tech industry billionaires—make it possible.
The data economy rose from the shadows of foreign surveillance and became a mainstream marketplace fueled by our apps and browsing history. Meta and Google are among the most prolific data centers. We are incentivized to share our interests, relationship updates, and daily activities—all in 4k photos and videos for the world to see. Data brokers like Acxiom, Equifax, and Oracle collect and distribute vast quantities of identities for discerning investors, often at the expense of marginalized groups.
This “commercially obtained data” circumvents the need for warrants and public disclosure—a commercial trade route to deport immigrants or prosecute criminal cases.
Federal law enforcement and ICE officials are among the many patrons of data brokers, leaving our privacy outside the protections of civil rights. This “commercially obtained data” circumvents the need for warrants and public disclosure—a commercial trade route to deport immigrants or prosecute criminal cases. Paired with the right supreme court and state legislators, people who have had an abortion can be criminalized and evidence may be bought.
These databases have been found to include incomplete information and were not created for the purpose of evaluating citizenship or criminal intent, yet they are used by ICE, referenced by real time jail databases, and license plate readers. There are no regulations on what data brokers can collect. They have access to Taxpayer Identification Numbers and have purchased driver’s license numbers from state agencies.
Since the Cold War, the FBI, CIA, and NSA have all engaged in surveillance of activists, Black progressive leaders, and their allies. Oppression becomes increasingly swift and covert as commercial surveillance algorithms infer our beliefs through the organizations and individuals we engage with. Michigan signed a $3 million contract with ShadowDragon to use their predictive policing software. Predictive policing has expanded throughout the country, including in Massachusetts.
Algorithms combining non-criminal online activity with historically racially biased policing will only serve to institutionalize and perpetuate these inequitable outcomes.
Black people are over-represented in the prison population and sentences are increasing. Algorithms combining non-criminal online activity with historically racially biased policing will only serve to institutionalize and perpetuate these inequitable outcomes. ShadowDragon uses “open source intelligence” from social media platforms, chat apps, and websites to predict violence and unrest. Social network data is also used to identify relationships so Spotter, one of their many additional tools, allows officers to “socially engineer them to fill in investigative gaps.”
While the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) both require individuals to consent to data tracking, the CCPA only requires people to opt-out—the default is consent. The result is a reality where we sign contracts nearly every day. One click gives Facebook permission to track your activity to provide “personalized” content—advertisements. Merely browsing Buzzfeed consents to forced arbitration, a waiver to participate in a class action lawsuit for any reason. Wrapped in the privilege of “consumer choice,” these laws require individuals to separately consent to having their behavior data used for marketing, performance, tracking, or other purposes. These notifications are so frequent, choice and consent become meaningless in reality.
A patchwork of other state laws have surfaced that address specific areas like requiring data brokers to register with the attorney general, securing data held by internet service providers, children’s internet privacy, and regulating e-reader data privacy. These policies primarily legitimize the commodification of privacy and relegate people neither to the role of consumer nor the product, but the object by which corporations mine their behavioral data. Their data are refined by predictive algorithms into new insights sold to advertisers, governments, and law enforcement.
Data brokers engage in mass surveillance at a domestic and global level. They use billions of data points, or “Big Data,” to target identity groups and manipulate their behavior for profit. Their predictive algorithms craft new data they impose on other individuals without their knowledge or consent to further manipulate their futures. Regulating data brokers increases transparency and consumer choice, but they are not nearly enough to address the gaping hole that is a constitutional right to privacy or the immense control of data harvesting tech companies.
Short of abolishing data brokers, congress needs to set their sights on the type of data collected and how long it can be stored. It is not enough to allow people to request their data be deleted, but it should be disposable. Targeting specific groups should be limited—especially for political campaigns where manipulative advertising threatens our democratic integrity. Law enforcement and immigration officers should not be able to circumvent obtaining a warrant to gain detailed insight into our personal lives. These recommendations get to the underlying mechanisms of mass manipulation and frame privacy as a right—not a commodity.
Surveillance is a historical tool of oppression and capitalist expansion.
Surveillance is a historical tool of oppression and capitalist expansion; data brokers and tech industry oligarchs have more power than government officials in many ways that simple transparency cannot solve. There should not be a commercial means for law enforcement officers to gain evidence for criminal investigations, for ICE to destroy families, or politicians to silence opposing voices. Surveillance removes uncertainty and lines the pockets of businesses, however uncertainty gives power to the people and cultivates freedom.