The lack of digital privacy in the United States

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The lack of personal control of digital data is a major concern to people of almost any demographic in the United States of America.  Federal congressional rulings have deemed the online data of U.S. consumers to be salable to any third parties internet service providers desire.  The ruling was made possible by the Congressional Review Act of 1996, enabling Congress to overturn standing federal regulations.  In Quincy Larson’s article “How to set up a VPN in 10 minutes for free (and why you urgently need one)” he wrote that “Prior to 2017, congress had only successfully used the CRA once. But since the new administration took over in January, it’s been successfully used 3 times — for things like overturning pesky environmental regulations.” Larson’s article also explains that it is not just web addresses and browsing history that can be sold now, but financial information, social security number and even geolocation information.  Americans are unsurprisingly disapproving of their personal information being sold by their ISP to unknown third parties without giving permission, but American consumers are relying upon their ISPs in order to perform a myriad of tasks.

The collusion between politicians and ISPs that donated to their efforts lies at the heart of the issue.  While white-collar crime and political corruption headlines often reach the public, the ability of a select few corporations to own and sell all online information of its customers, with congressional ruling on their side, is still shocking to many Americans.  Larson’s article notes that while Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona was spearheading congress towards overturning FCC regulations protecting the digital information of Americans, “Every single Democrat and Independent voted against the CRA resolution,” two Republicans did not vote on the resolution and all other Republicans approved the resolution, enabling the resolution to pass with a final count of 50-48.  This raises an issue of where Republican senators’ interests lie.  Larson’s article claims that only the four ISP monopolies benefit from rolling back internet privacy regulations previously set by the FCC.  However, due to the donations and subsequent unilateral decision by Republican lawmakers to greatly empower ISPs at the cost of its constituents implies that at least federal Republican senators have benefitted from this legislation.  The future remains uncertain for how this collusion will play out specifically, because ISPs’ prerogative over the digital information of Americans has been made so far-reaching.

One way in which tracking digital information of American citizens has been used for explicitly political purposes prior to this legislation was the management of Trump’s presidential campaign by Jared Kushner.  Steven Bertoni’s interview with Kushner “Exclusive Interview:  How Jared Kushner Won Trump The White House” asserts that Kushner’s focus on targeting of voters through collecting social media data had a profound effect on the 2016 election of Trump, and Bertoni even claims that Kushner’s tactics “will change the way future elections will be won and lost.”  The former CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt, said in the article that “Best I can tell, he [Kushner] actually ran the campaign and did it with almost no resources.”

The Trump campaign was able to take data from Facebook users and market their product– Donald Trump.  Kushner’s ability to network digital marketing circles gave the campaign the networking capabilities to digitally design a campaign.  Bertoni’s interview discusses that after receiving consulting and training from subcontractors of digital marketers he knew in Silicon Valley, Kushner was able to micro-target for Facebook, effectively sparking an increase in daily sales Trump merchandise tenfold. Constantly finding new ways to reach Facebook users creates the potential for micro-targeting on social media to desired congressional districts, in particular, swing districts.  Just by mapping Americans’ interests on social media, the Trump campaign may have even been able to put its efforts towards discouraging liberal voters in certain areas.

The campaign was highly adaptable the public’s tastes.   According to Bertoni, the Trump team employed the use of data analysis firms such as Cambridge Analytica “to map voter universes and identify which parts of the Trump platform mattered most: trade, immigration or change.”  This highly specific data enabled Kushner and the Trump campaign team to know what to say and when.  According to Bertoni’s article “Ineffective ads were killed in minutes while effective ones scaled.”  Bertoni describes the online presence of Trump supporters as “human billboards.”  The utilization of supporters to act as free advertising was paramount to the way in which Kushner helped to shape the 2016 presidential election.

Starting in 2016, any public Facebook post had the potential to be turned into a trolling or political mudslinging contest no matter how removed the original post was from politics.  This brings up the long-term social effects that seem to be the new norm.  Facebook may have painfully proven the point that all social actions are political, whether or not the actions, comments or gestures are intended to be political.

The congressional decision should be alarming to anyone that values having any sort of autonomy over their personal information, or the idea that an average citizen’s personal information is more than a bargaining chip for corporate monopolies.  It seems inconceivable that there is any moral substance behind seeking the ability to sell all digital data  from Facebook likes, to social security numbers and geographic location.  Larson’s article references a Pew Research Center, a study that found “91% of adults agree or strongly agree that ‘consumers have lost control of how personal information is collected and used by companies.”  This data shows a serious manipulation of citizens, residents and customers by the partnerships between political and economic leaders that speak ad nauseam about working in accord with public interest.