Ethics And Privacy In The Modern World

Speaking with a friend the other day, I pitched this great idea I had. I promised him a revolutionary business model that would disrupt how we live our lives in society. His reactions were all over the map, from laughing at the ridiculousness of what was being proposed to becoming confused and finally appalled. Luckily, I was not proposing anything. I just wanted to catch him on a trap – and I did.

At the time, I happened to live in a building in one of Canada’s largest metropolitan cities. I was on a high floor in a very residential area, and from my balcony, anyone interested could see much of what most of my neighbors were doing. You could see which of them had pools in their backyards, how many cars they had, when they left for work, or when they were back from grocery shopping. With little effort, you could even get a reasonably accurate idea of the square footage of their homes, or see who was exercising. So, my thought was: what if I document all this, format a vast collection of data about these people, and make it available online for whoever is interested? I could even charge a small fee, scale the business, and make millions!

At this point, if you’re anything like me, you’re at least a little disgusted even by the thought of doing something like this, especially at a larger scale. But let me ask you this question: isn’t that precisely what the big tech companies are doing? Before you answer that, here is another one: when was the last time they knocked on your door and asked your permission to display aerial views of your house on their maps platforms for anyone to see? And before you think about it, no, the terms and conditions people accept when they create their accounts have nothing to do with it. Even if you don’t have an account with them, your house is already there!

What most people don’t know is that it doesn’t stop there. Your internet browser catalogs information on websites you visit and searches you do, making that data readily available for anyone trying to offer you targeted ads. To make it worse, it can also track your location as part of the data salvaging. And no, this doesn’t only happen on your desktop computer. Your mobile browser and many other apps are doing the same thing. This has gotten to a point where even turning your phone settings off won’t stop it.

Despite its looks, this is no conspiracy theory. The truth is out there (thanks, Mulder and Scully). If this is true, how come nobody talks about it? How come nobody does anything about it? You’re now asking the right questions. The reality is, nobody reads the terms and conditions, and that is the loophole the big tech needs to keep doing what they’re doing. If you took a closer look, you would confirm that you have given them, for example, the right to somehow package your data in a way that makes it legal for them to sell it to others.

Unfortunately, only a tiny minority of people are aware of this, and part of those who are don’t really care. My friends often say, “I’ve nothing to hide, so I don’t care.” So the question is, what data does the big tech have on you, exactly? Why do you not have control? What can they do with that information? Nobody can really answer that. Many people were born in a world where this is already happening, so that has been normalized for them. When they get old, a few corporations will have decades of data collected throughout their whole lives (and ours, too). If you happen to be a parent, you certainly have quite a few pictures of your children on your phone. As your photo collection grows over the years, somehow, your device knows that it’s the same person. Switching to a brand new phone doesn’t affect any change to this – all the history is migrated, and suddenly, the new device knows it all again.

In the end, the bigger question is: what societal model are we heading towards? How will this mass data collection impact our lives one or two decades from now? Once again, nobody knows, and no promises can be made. Also, is it fair that these companies are making trillions of dollars a year off your data in exchange for a “free” web browser, or some platform you can post food pictures on?

Companies are only as ethical as the people working for them. Likewise, technologies are only as moral as the people developing them. If you are in IT, you have a greater responsibility in this world. You have the opportunity to think about it and ponder if the work that you’re doing – or the one your boss wants you to do – is honorable. To have your conscience clear, avoid getting involved in business models that rely on taking advantage of others. This may be your ultimate contribution to a better future.

About the Author

Luiz Parente is a senior software engineer who is passionate about systems design and technology. Having started his journey in computer programming at the age of 14, his core expertise is centered in solutions architecture with .NET technologies.

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