A Cheap Spying Tool With a High Creepy Factor (NYTimes) demonstrates how easy it is to “spy” on people. This doesn’t surprise me at all nor does it amount to a journalistic revelation. What is significant, however, is that it points towards how dangerously little knowledge consumers have about their online privacy.
This information asymmetry allows suppliers of technology, from one-man phone app developers to chip manufactures, to exploit consumers to the point of wilful negligence. Due to factors such as app information “leakage” that the NYT article mentions, there is little the consumer can do to protect herself even in the safety of her home WiFi network. We are blind to how vulnerable consuming online technology can make us.
It would follow that greater government intervention and regulation has a key role in resolving this issue. Where individual citizens cannot offset the costs of accessing now-ubiquitous technology, the citizens’ collective agent has a responsibility to act. Taking a harder line on cybercrime, while useful, does not resolve the fact that anyone with a smartphone makes themselves a target simply by connecting to WiFi. Rather than discouraging people from abusing the pathetically low standards of privacy protection that exist now, government should raise them with market-based solutions.
Regulating the technology industry and markets like Apple’s App Store to require greater privacy protections would be a promising start. Furthermore, technology suppliers should be required to make available information regarding the strength and nature of their product’s privacy protection, much like the contents information table on cereal boxes and food products. This transparency could also take form as a government agency rating or certification, which would also serve the purpose of flagging illicit or malicious technology for the ignorant consumer.
As the NYT points out, it is not only the apps that we download and use that leak information; it is the very act of taking a phone or computer online that can give away basic information to anyone – criminal or not – who may be looking. Therefore, fundamental overhauls of everyday technology should be encouraged. Given new laws requiring transparency about technology products, competing products would suddenly become comparable by privacy protection standards, spurning firms to invest in better privacy protection technologies.
Obviously, introducing legislation in the interest of consumers is hardly straightforward. First, this issue is international: what the United States requires of its app and phone developers does not apply to China’s. Buying technology goods and services from other countries, legally or not, is ridiculously easy. To make matters worse, democratic governments want to avoid being perceived as Big Brother, arbitrarily altering privacy laws, especially after last year’s widespread movement against the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (PIPA). Such protests were also unanimously opposed by major technology firms, making sweeping political action on this issue even less likely.