Capitalizing on Data Privacy in the Digital Age?

In the thick of the Digital Age, we have become increasingly reliant on technology to facilitate our everyday lives, from touchscreen phones to desktop word processors. One can do almost anything through digital apps; for instance, WeChat possesses multi-capabilities, stemming from financial transactions to voice messaging to real-time location alerts. Technology is ubiquitous, and these days, everything digital and interactive is advertised as ‘smart’ - smart watches, smart cars, and even smart homes.  

However, it is important to remember that ‘smart’ is not synonymous with ‘trustworthy’ or ‘reliable.’ In recent years, the exponential growth in digitization has been increasingly matched by a demand for data privacy. Unfortunately, technological growth has accelerated so quickly that legislative and political reforms to digital privacy rights have been unable to catch up. This translates to the exploitation of user data by tech companies, through data leaks or mass surveillance. In early 2018, for example, the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal came to light when it was discovered that political consulting firm Cambridge Analytical had illegally gathered personal information from up to 87 million Facebook users to assist political campaigns. Google discreetly discontinued its own social network, Google Plus, following a data breach undisclosed to the public until March. From as early as 2013, there have been instances of law enforcement employing unethical digital surveillance techniques to obtain evidence, such as listening in on phone calls or read text messages without the user’s knowledge.  

As such, secure digital privacy has become an increasingly relevant social concern, especially in recent times as major industry players such as Facebook and Google have admitted to large-scale data breaches. Some companies have been able to capitalize on consumers’ demand for adequate data protection. With the iPhone XS’s product launch on September 12th, Apple CEO Tim Cook showcased its glossy OLED display and cinematic camera specifications. More importantly, however, as Fast Company journalist Michael Grothaus explains, Cook advertised user security in a way that “Apple’s best product is now privacy.” This is a promise that other major corporations couldn’t easily satisfy. Unlike Facebook and Google, Apple’s business model doesn’t revolve around collecting user data to tailor advertisements. It can afford to embed anti-tracking protections within its iOS, ensure strict privacy-protection policies in the App Store, and block third-party cookies in Safari. At a time where individuals are growing increasingly worried about how tech companies are handling their private data, Apple’s vow of data security stands out for securing consumer trust.

As Tim Cook once told CNN, at Apple, “we think privacy is a fundamental human right.” Nevertheless, it is interesting that he chooses to capitalize on digital privacy as a selling point too. Following Apple’s lead, other tech firms have begun offering “pseudonymization” features or anonymized cloud services in an attempt to win over an increasingly conscientious consumer base. As of now, privacy is liable, more than ever, to become a large-scale commodity capable of monetization. Firms are increasingly investing in infrastructure that guarantees data protection. With major players such as Oracle, Symantec, and IBM, the data protection market is projected to exceed $120 billion in five years, at an annual growth rate of fifteen percent.

Commercializing digital privacy presents a slew of ethical issues. Should privacy be assigned a monetary value? Though privacy, in concept, has always been cited as an inalienable human right, it has never been listed as such in the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution. Carnegie Mellon University professor Alessandro Acquisti, in a panel discussion hosted by PwC, agrees that consumers implicitly assign a monetary value to privacy, though dependent on context, so long as privacy is framed as an immediate payoff, rather than a long-term hypothetical gain. But even if privacy is popularly perceived to contain monetary worth, is it justifiable for tech firms to capitalize on that perspective?