Is It too late to protect our privacy in the internet age?

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Privacy legal expert Neil Richards. Photo courtesy of Washington University School of Law

In recent decades, as the internet grew to play a key role in nearly every aspect of our daily lives, the price we all paid—many of us without realizing—is a practically universal loss of privacy. Conversations surrounding online privacy, who should have our personal data and what should they be able to do with it, have ebbed and flowed over the years, even as internet behemoths like Google and Meta (formerly Facebook) have grown unprecedentedly powerful, capitalizing on the most intimate details of our lives. At times of crisis, such as the September 11 attacks and now the COVID-19 pandemic, governments and corporations alike convinced many of us that the loss of privacy was a small price to pay for safety—be that national security or public health.

Privacy legal expert Neil Richards, however, isn’t buying these narratives and is here to remind us how critical privacy is to individuals with his aptly titled new book “Why Privacy Matters.” Joining host Robert Scheer on this week’s “Scheer Intelligence,” the two discuss how we got to this dystopian point, and whether we have in fact passed a point of no return when it comes to privacy. Richards outlines how various moments in recent history became missed opportunities to meaningfully protect sensitive information from being exploited by corporations and governments. Praising NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden for revealing the extent to which the U.S. government has spied on everyone from world leaders to its own citizens, the leading privacy lawyer also offers a glimmer of hope regarding how we can collectively protect our privacy, knowing what we now know about surveillance. 

Richards, who grew up in the North of England where the Industrial Revolution took off in the 18th century, points to the gains made in labor conditions over the following century to address the horrors of the socioeconomic shift as evidence that things can still change for the better after a major disruption. There is time, he argues, to fight against some of the most dangerous pitfalls of the internet age; and progress has already been made, such as the European Union’s strict General Data Protection Regulation.

“It’s not just the collection of data that we need to worry about, it’s the uses that the data is put to,” says Richards. “We need to ask: How is the information being used? What rules are governing the ways in which that information is being used? And whose values do they serve? Do they serve corporate values of making profit? Do they serve the values of government? Or do they serve the values of individual people to be politically free?”

Scheer, whose book, “They Know Everything About You: How Data-Collecting Corporations and  Snooping Government Agencies are Destroying Democracy,” is less hopeful than Richards when it comes to the future of privacy. To the “Scheer Intelligence” host, one possible solution is to break up Big Tech with antitrust laws, a path that Richards agrees is one of several ways that privacy issues can be addressed.

Listen to the full conversation between Richards and Scheer as the two consider not only why privacy matters, but why the fight to protect privacy is essential to the survival of democracy. 



Joshua Scheer