Oct 15th 2017

Why we need new regulations to protect us from Facebook and Equifax

The theft of an estimated 143 million Americans’ personal details in a data breach of consumer-credit reporting agency Equifax and the Russian hack of the U.S. elections through Facebook had one thing in common: they were facilitated by the absence of legal protection for personal data. Though the U.S. Constitution provides Americans with privacy rights and freedoms, it doesn’t protect them from modern-day scavengers who obtain information about them and use it against them. Our privacy laws were designed during the days of the telegraph and are badly in need of modernization. Much damage has already been done to our finances, privacy, and democracy—but worse lies ahead.

Credit bureaus have long been gathering information about our earnings, spending habits, and loan-repayment histories in order to determine our credit-worthiness. Tech companies have taken this one step further, monitoring our web-surfing habits, emails, and phone calls. Via social media, we have volunteered information on our friends and our likes and dislikes, and shared family photographs. Our smartphones know everywhere we go and can keep track of our health and emotions. Smart TVs, internet-enabled toys, and voice-controlled bots are monitoring what we do in our homes—and often are recording it.

In the land-grab for data, there were no clear regulations about who owned what, so tech companies staked claims to everything. Facebook required its users to grant it “a non-exclusive, transferable, sub-licensable, royalty-free, worldwide license to use any IP content” they posted to the site. It effectively required them to give it the right to use their family photos and videos for marketing purposes and to resell them to anybody. American laws are so inadequate that such companies are not even required to tell consumers what information they are gathering and how they will use it.

Unlike manufacturers liable for the safety of their products, tech companies gathering our data have practically no liability for compromising it; they can protect it as they choose and sell it to whomever they want to—regardless of how the third party will use it. No wonder Equifax had such lax security or that Russians and hate groups were able to target the susceptible with misinformation on Facebook.

The problem of data brokers’ not being required to provide industrial-strength security can possibly be fixed by the FTC. University of California at Berkeley law professor Pamela Samuelson says that it has “statutory authority to regulate unfair and deceptive practices, it can act on that authority by initiating claims against those who fail to maintain adequate security.” She notes that the FTC has used these powers before, by nudging firms to have privacy and security policies. And when firms failed to comply with their own policies, the FTC treated that as an unfair and deceptive practice.

This would level the playing field by making data brokers as responsible for their actions as most product manufacturers are for theirs. We hold our car manufacturers responsible for the safety of their products; why shouldn’t the tech companies bear similar responsibility?

New legislation could be enacted too. But Samuelson says that the data holders would fight it even harder. And, though it will be a good step forward, it will only solve yesterday’s problems.

Its falling costs will soon make DNA sequencing as common blood tests, and the tech companies that today ask us to upload our photos will tomorrow ask us to upload our genomic information. Technology will be able also to understand our mental state and emotions. These data will encompass everything that differentiates us as human beings, including our genetics and psychology. Whilst credit reports could result in withholding of loans, corporate use of our genetic data could affect our jobs and livelihoods. We could be singled out for having genetic predispositions to crime or disease and find ourselves discriminated against in new ways.

The Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2008 prohibits the use of genetic information in health insurance and employment. But it provides no protection from discrimination in such matters as long-term care, disability, housing, and life insurance, and it places few limits on commercial use. There are no laws to stop companies from using aggregated genomic data in the same way that lending companies and employers use social-media data, or to prevent marketers from targeting ads at people with genetic defects.

Some states have begun passing laws to say that your DNA data is your property; but we need federal laws that stipulate that we own all of our own data, even if it takes an amendment to the Constitution. The right to decide what information we want to share and the right to know how it is being used are fundamental human rights in this era of advancing technologies.

Harvard Law School professor Lawrence Lessig has argued that privacy should be protected via property rights rather than via liability rules—which don’t prevent somebody from taking your data without your consent, with payment later. A property regime would keep data control with the person holding the property right. “When you have a property right, before someone takes your property they must negotiate with you about how much it is worth”, argues Lessig. Imagine a website that allowed you to manage all of your data, including those generated by the devices in your house, and to charge interested companies license fees for its use. That is what would become possible.

Daniel J. Solove, Professor of Law at George Washington University Law School, has reservations about protecting privacy as a form of property right, because the “market approach has difficulty assigning the proper value to personal information”. He worries that although to an individual giving out bits of information in different contexts, each transfer may appear innocuous, the information could be aggregated and become invasive when combined with other information. “It is the totality of information about a person and how it is used that poses the greatest threat to privacy”, he says.

It isn’t going to be easy to develop the new systems for maintaining control of personal information, but it is imperative that we start discussing solutions. As Thomas Jefferson said in 1816: “Laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also, and keep pace with the times.”

Link to different version on Washington Post’s website

The post Why we need new regulations to protect us from Facebook and Equifax appeared first on Vivek Wadhwa.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Dec 13th 2021
EXTRACT: " We all know that Father Christmas would struggle to deliver presents to everyone around the world without the help of his magical reindeer. But why were they chosen to pull the sleigh rather than any other animal? It turns out that the biology of reindeer makes them ideal for the job. Here are five reasons why."
Dec 4th 2021
EXTRACT: "Planting more forests is a potent tool for mitigating the climate crisis, but forests are like complex machines with millions of parts. Tree planting can cause ecological damage when carried out poorly, particularly if there is no commitment to diversity of planting. Following Darwin’s thinking, there is growing awareness that the best, healthiest forests are ones with the greatest variety of trees - and trees of various ages."
Nov 19th 2021
EXTRACTS: "At a time when the struggle between authoritarianism and democracy is so intense, if not fateful for the future of democracies, NATO and the EU must warn these countries [Editor's note: Poland and Hungary, EU and NATO, Turkey NATO] that they are on the precipice of being kicked out if they do not change their governing practice. They must be required to restore the principles of democracy by upholding universal human rights and abiding the rule of law, or else they will forfeit their membership and suffer from the consequences of their crimes." ------ "A narcissistic leader, such as Trump, whose hunger for power seems to know no limit, has happily sacrificed the good of the country on the altar of his twisted ego. America’s democracy cannot be repaired unless he and those who helped him are held accountable and face the weight of the law."
Nov 18th 2021
EXTRACT: "Many people who go through intense trauma, for example, become deeper and stronger than they were before. They may even undergo a sudden and radical transformation that makes life more meaningful and fulfilling. Indeed, research shows that between half and one-third of all people experience significant personal development after traumatic events, such as bereavement, serious illness, accidents or divorce. Over time, they may feel a new sense of inner strength and confidence and gratitude for life and other people. They may develop more intimate and authentic relationships and have a wider perspective, with a clear sense of what is important in life and what isn’t. In psychology, this is referred to as “post-traumatic growth”. "
Nov 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Notably, Murdoch thinks that really knowing or understanding another person is a difficult task: “It is a task to come to see the world as it is”. According to the Freudian psychology Murdoch subscribes to in The Sovereignty of Good, humans are prone to “fantasy” – refusing to face the truth because it can damage our fragile egos."
Nov 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "People do not believe false information because they are ignorant. There are many factors at work, but most researchers would agree that the belief in misinformation has little to do with the amount of knowledge a person possesses. Misinformation is a prime example of motivated reasoning. People tend to arrive at the conclusions they want to reach as long as they can construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these outcomes."
Oct 28th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Brood with me on the latest delay of the full release of the records pertaining to the murder of President John F. Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963. That was 58 years ago." -----"Mark my words: ...... No one who remembers 1963 will live to see the US government admit the full truth about Kennedy’s murder. And the American people’s faith in democracy will continue to fade. There is only one way to prevent this, and that is to release every record, withholding nothing – and to do it now."
Oct 27th 2021
EXTRACT: "..... we may defy the warnings of modern medicine, convinced of our own superiority. Researchers at the University of Chicago Divinity School reported half of their participants, all of whom indicated some religious affiliation, agreed with the statement “God will protect me from being infected”. To cope with our dread of death, we delude ourselves into thinking we are invincible: death might happen to other people, but not to me."
Oct 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Wes Anderson’s new film The French Dispatch is about the final issue of a magazine that specialises in long-form articles about the goings-on in the fictional town of Ennui-sur-Blasé. The film is an anthology of shorts representing three of the articles. A piece by the magazine’s art critic (Tilda Swinton) explores the life and late success of the abstract artist Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Talented from a young age, Rosenthaler pursued art with a dogged determination that drove him to slowly lose his mind." ---- "Like everything else, mental illness is understood within the context of its time. In their study of melancholy and genius Born Under Saturn, the art historians Margot and Rudolf Wittkower show how Renaissance artists embraced mental alienation. This was shown by a withdrawn, slothful gloom. Such heavy sadness was considered both the symptom and the price of divine inspiration." ---- "Today, the association of creativity and mental illness often implies regression from an adult and orderly state of mind to one that is primal, impulsive, or infantile. The artist in Anderson’s film is such an example: he is noisy, impetuous, and extravagantly mad. And it is while he is at his “maddest” that he paints his best work." ---- "Here I explore the work of four painters whose work has been shaped by various mental illnesses, highlighting how the idea of the “mad artist” need not be tied up with a loss of control but rather a bid to gain it."
Oct 21st 2021
EXTRACT: "So much of Succession holds a mirror to real life, and the way that Logan Roy’s hand-picked board members allowed these abuses to continue by turning a blind eye to them is a good example. We have just published research that shows that public companies whose directors are chosen by their CEOs are statistically more likely to be involved in corporate misconduct, along with various other shortcomings. So why does this happen, and what should be done about it? "
Oct 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "Born in Zanzibar in 1948, Gurnah came to Britain in the 1960s as a refugee. Being of Arab origin, he was forced to flee his birthplace during the revolution of 1964 and only returned in 1984 in time to visit his dying father. Until his retirement, he was a full-time professor of English and postcolonial literatures at the University of Kent in Canterbury."
Oct 7th 2021
EXTRACT: "As the 25th James Bond film No Time to Die hits the cinemas, we are once again reminded of the way that disability is depicted negatively in Hollywood films. The new James Bond film features three villains, all of who have facial disfigurements (Blofeld, Safin and Primo). If you take a closer look at James Bond villains throughout history, the majority have facial disfigurements or physical impairments. This is in sharp contrast to the other characters, including James Bond, who are able-bodied and presented with no physical bodily differences. Indeed, many films still rely on outdated disability tropes, including Star Wars and various Disney classics. Rather than simply being part of a character’s identity, the physical difference is exploited and exaggerated to become a plot point and visual metaphor for villains" ----- "The British Film Institute (BFI) was the first organisation to sign up and has committed to stop funding films that feature negative representations depicted through scars or facial differences – a step in the right direction."
Oct 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "The trillions of microbes inside of our gut play many very important roles in our body. Not only does this “microbiome” regulate our metabolism and help us absorb nutrients from food into the body, it can also influence whether we are lean or obese."
Sep 16th 2021
EXTRACTS: "Hyperbaric oxygen therapy involves breathing pure oxygen in a pressurised chamber. In the chamber, the air pressure is increased two to three times higher than normal air pressure. It is commonly used to treat decompression sickness (a condition scuba divers can suffer from), carbon monoxide poisoning,......" ---- "Blood flow to the brain is reduced in people with Alzheimer’s. This study showed increased blood flow to the brain in the mice receiving oxygen therapy, which helps with the clearance of plaques from the brain, and reduces inflammation – a hallmark of Alzheimer’s." ----- "The researchers then used these findings to assess the effectiveness of oxygen therapy in six people over the age of 65 with cognitive decline. They found that 60 sessions of oxygen therapy, over 90 days, increased blood flow in certain areas of the brain and significantly improved the patients’ cognitive abilities – improved memory, attention and information processing speed."
Sep 14th 2021
EXTRACT: "Hollywood for years called on Charles Boyer to typify one French look –  bedroom eyes, sly maneuverings, the dismissive look. A face of another type, the massive mug and narrow eyes of Charles de Gaulle, provides the same disdain of the foreigner but also a superiority based on his belief in his own destiny."
Sep 12th 2021
EXTRACT: "The burden of loneliness for older people is intimately connected to what they are alone with. As we reach the end of our lives, we frequently carry heavy burdens that have accumulated along the way, such as feelings of regret, betrayal and rejection. And the wounds from past relationships can haunt people all their lives."
Sep 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Gardens help restore the ability to concentrate on demanding tasks, providing the perfect space for a break when working from home in a pandemic. Natural things – such as trees, plants and water – are particularly easy on the eye and demand little mental effort to look at. Simply sitting in a garden is therefore relaxing and beneficial to mental wellbeing."
Aug 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "Whether or not a person achieves remission, reducing blood sugar levels is important in managing the negative effects of type 2 diabetes and reducing risk of complications. But when it comes to choosing a diet, the most important thing is to pick one that suits you – one that you’re likely to stick to long term."
Aug 10th 2021
EXTRACT: "In our latest study, we show that by taking the microbiome from young mice and transplanting them into old mice, many of the effects of ageing on learning and memory and immune impairments can be reversed. Using a maze, we showed that this faecal microbiota transplant from young to old mice led to the old mice finding a hidden platform faster."
Aug 3rd 2021
EXTRACT: "Fukuyama argued that political struggle causes history. This struggle tries to solve the problem of thymos – an ancient Greek term referring to our desire to have our worth recognised. This desire can involve wanting to be recognised as equal to others. But it can also involve wanting to be recognised as superior to others. A stable political system needs to accommodate both desires." .... "Counter-dominant spite can weaken liberal democracies. During the 2016 Brexit referendum, some people in the UK voted Leave to spite elites, knowing this could damage the country’s economy. Similarly, during the 2016 US presidential election some voters supported Donald Trump to spite Hillary Clinton, knowing his election could harm the US. "