The Battle Between Data and Privacy Rights Will Become Even More Chilling

Picturing life at the mercy of 3 big tech companies

Is a tech dystopia coming? Or is it already here? - Credit by Getty Images
Headshot of Josh Sternberg

Over Thanksgiving, I had several conversations with nonmedia people about living in a tech dystopian present. They asked me all sorts of questions about Facebook and Google, artificial intelligence and 5G, data and privacy, and blockchain (of course) because, you know, I’m a tech editor.

They asked if they should delete their Facebook account (yes), if AI is really coming for us (maybe), if 5G will really be the transformative technology we say it will be (it depends). But then they asked about the implications of giving our data to brands, or how safe it is to use “smart” technologies, and the discussion turned toward literature and how similar questions of technological advancement have permeated society for quite some time.

Three books—1984, Brave New World, The Circle—each present an argument about tech. 1984, we’re taught, is about a Big Brother surveillance state; Brave New World shows us how technology can numb us; The Circle shines a light on what it means to be fully transparent. Each, in its own way, brings technological determinism to the front of the class, parading it as a fait accompli. The march of technology cannot be stopped—the vision of a dystopian future where technology towers over us, scares us, comforts us, entertains us.

As the Gregorian calendar, its own special type of technological relativism, flips from 2018 to 2019, the questions of ethics, of legal implications, of rights, get louder, more pointed. The legal and moral implications of people willingly giving up their data are going to intensify in 2019 in ways we’ve only seen in science fiction.

Take, for example, the three big tech companies that seem to be at the center of, well, everything: Facebook, Amazon and Google.

In early October, Facebook rolled out its video camera product, Portal, about which my colleague David Cohen wrote: “Under intense scrutiny over privacy and its handling of user data, Facebook apparently believes people will welcome a Facebook device, complete with a camera that follows people around the room, into their homes.”

Google spent all of 2018 pumping millions in marketing money into convincing you, dear reader, that its Google Home Hub is the smart device you need to be a more efficient human. Make Google do it for you, the tagline goes. Or maybe all that marketing money, more strategically, was trying to catch up to Amazon. It worked.

Amazon, in its quest to make our lives simpler, continues to introduce variations of its Echo Show (as well as all the other products it’s developed or bought that encroach on our personal privacy—Ring, Blink, Go, etc.). At the very least, it makes for a good receptionist, as the Barbarian Group told another colleague, tech staff writer Lisa Lacy, earlier this year.

All three of these products present ethical quandaries for users. How much of our privacy do we give up in order to turn on the lights by asking an assistant? Should our data be ours, or is it part of the unsigned contract we make with tech companies to use their free services?

Next year will only intensify the chasm between the tech companies and legal entities that want to regulate them.

In a late-November FTC hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said, “Big tech is no longer entitled to [America’s] trust, if it ever was, and big tech is maybe no longer entitled to be as big as it is. Misuse of bigness can be in violation of antitrust laws.”

This year saw California and Vermont pass data-regulation laws, months after the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) went into effect. Deliberations will continue to stretch into the near future at the federal level.

What it all boils down to is this: One day, we’ll have to reckon with the fact that these three companies know more about us than any living being. Google knows what I’m curious about; Facebook knows what I like; Amazon knows what I buy. This is incredibly powerful, if not chilling. Of course, the challenge for our industry is that Google, Facebook and Amazon each present significant revenue and revenue opportunities for the three pillars of our industry: brands, agencies and publishers.

People talk about the backlash against “tech,” but it’s specific categories that they’re actually afraid of. My friends’ questions were geared toward this thinking, diving into science-fiction-type parables. They’re scared of constantly being watched, giving up their data, losing their identity.

And yet, they still gladly sign up for sites using their phone number, which is more valuable than your Social Security number. They still post pictures of their kids on the internet. They are not as afraid as I, your humble tech editor. 

Perhaps they should be. They’ve read the books. 

This story first appeared in the December 3, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@joshsternberg Josh Sternberg is the former media and tech editor at Adweek.
Publish date: December 3, 2018 © 2020 Adweek, LLC. - All Rights Reserved and NOT FOR REPRINT