I often lament the loss of online privacy and complain about how data brokers possess way too much information about all of us. They are ready to sell it to the highest bidder, that will then provide “personalized” advertisements. Sure, it is easy enough to ignore unwanted ads, even though it is an annoyance. However, this is not just an inconvenience: this lack of online privacy can have dire consequences.
Location data, for example, can seriously endanger survivors of stalking, domestic violence, or other crimes. Personal data can, even unintentionally, reveal someone’s gender or sexual orientation, even when the individual is not ready to share it.
After the overturning of Roe vs Wade in the United States, and the numerous anti-abortion laws cropping up in many states, there have been warnings about period-tracking apps, since that data can be seized by the government to prosecute women trying to get an abortion.
This is not a far-fetched Orwellian dystopia: in June 2022, a Nebraska, USA, woman has been charged with helping her teenage daughter end her pregnancy at about 24 weeks after investigators obtained Facebook messages in which the two discussed using medication to induce an abortion and plans to burn the fetus afterward. The daughter, who is now 18, is being charged as an adult at the prosecutors’ request. (APNews.com)
However, even when it does not lead to such horrifying consequences, personal data in the careless hands of brokers can wreak havoc in someone’s life. A couple of days ago I read the personal story of Anya E. R. Prince (a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law), in the Atlantic magazine. Her situation was the exact opposite of the one of the Nebraska woman: she was early in her pregnancy and thrilled about it. She did not want to share her news until after the first trimester, due to the high risk of losing the baby in these early months. Being a health-privacy scholar, she went to extreme lengths to hide her condition from advertisers: she uninstalled “fem-tech” apps, bought prenatal vitamins in person and paid with cash, used a VPN for her internet searches, disabled the GPS function in her phone and even left the phone home for her medical appointments.
It did not matter: an ad for diapers popped up on her social media feed. This was not only disheartening, but it was also extremely heart-breaking since the ad appeared in the same week she sadly lost her baby. As she writes: “Seeing advertisements of smiling babies and happy families throughout social media in the days and weeks after the loss made an already unbearable grieving process that much harder”
She advocates for greater protections, that are sorely needed. I fully agree with Anya: unauthorized use of personal data can and does cause emotional harm, stigma, discrimination, and even criminal prosecution. When will Americans (and citizens of the rest of the world) say enough is enough?