In 2024, asking if we should have a right to personal privacy is the wrong question; we crossed that bridge with the arrival of the internet decades ago. Since then, increasing layers of technology in our daily lives have collectively invaded our personal space. Yet each of us feels entitled to privacy, fueling a myth that permeates our world today.
Consider the use of facial recognition technology.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) uses facial recognition as a means of authenticating traveler identity. To fly commercially in the United States (and the world, for that matter) requires each person to prove that they are who they claim to be. Biometrics like facial recognition are more reliable than other forms of identity, like driver licenses, and the technology is continuing to improve, enhancing its robustness across a growing swath of people. It is also among the least expensive means to protect the air system from bad actors with nefarious intent.
However, concerns about privacy intrusion are pervasive.
As an example, a group of senators has proposed a bill, the Traveler Privacy Protection Act, to stop the TSA from using credential authentication tools. “The TSA program is a precursor to a full-blown national surveillance state,” said Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.). “Nothing could be more damaging to our national values of privacy and freedom.”
Credential authentication is a critical layer of airport security. Even showing one’s driver’s license or any other physical form of identification is an invasion of privacy, though it is rarely viewed as such. The miniscule amount of privacy each traveler gives up to confirm their identity with facial recognition is rewarded with more efficient airport screening and, in the future, the possibility of less physically intrusive screening, in service of the greater good.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is another area that continues to push the boundaries of personal privacy.
The effectiveness of AI depends on data, which often contains personal information that each of us share either intentionally or, more typically, inadvertently, with little thought of the choices we are making. Any time we access the internet, engage with social media, or even use our smart phone, opportunities for others to scrape our personal information are ubiquitous. Yet the convenience of using such technologies overrides any concerns about personal information and our privacy being invaded.
The same holds true with Amazon’s Alexa or Google Nest in our homes. These devices collect data that we voluntarily offer so that it can better serve us. Amazon and Google also can access such data, which means that whatever we offer for personal convenience may also be used by Amazon and Google to grow their AI databases.
Even something as seemingly benign as posting photos and information on our Facebook page may compromise our personal privacy. Some may believe that the TSA taking our photo at an airport security checkpoint is riskier than posting a selfie online, but such thoughts are gravely misinformed.
Our technological world has reached the point where there are no airtight mechanisms to keep all personal information from being accessed by others. That is a consequence of living in a highly connected world driven by the internet, and the presence of cyber-criminals looking for easy access to personal data.
Each of us wants convenience and privacy. Yet when given the option, we almost always choose convenience over privacy. If we did not, we would stay off the internet, make no online purchases, and function much like we did in the pre-internet era. Few of us are willing to accept such inconveniences.
The good news is that most of what we share about ourselves is not used egregiously. The sheer volume of such data would make it nearly impossible for all such data to be used to specifically target any single person. Our personal data often gets lost in an ocean of information that provides each of us with some halo-effect protection.
The myth of personal privacy persists because it makes us feel better to promulgate it. Each of us voluntarily contributes to sharing our data and personal information, because it serves our best interest to do so. We use cries for personal privacy as a mask for attacking or defending issues that are important to us.
So when a bill is proposed or some legal argument is put forward arguing about protecting our personal privacy, remember that it is an illusion. In reality, we need some of our privacy to be violated, to give us the conveniences that we expect and, ironically, the freedoms that we enjoy.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, Ph.D., is a professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based decision-making to evaluate and inform public policy.
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