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Why aren't Californians up in arms about tech company surveillance?

Why aren't Californians up in arms about tech company surveillance?
David Limp, Amazon Senior Vice President of Devices, pushes down on an Echo Dot in San Francisco on March 2, 2016. (Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

Every day in Silicon Valley, many of the brightest, most ambitious people in the United States do their utmost to collect as much data on individuals as they can. What Google, Apple and Facebook already know about their typical users is staggering. Each is racing its competitors to discover more about our families, friends, lovers and professional networks; the places that we go; the questions that we ask when we are happy, sad, anxious, afraid, aroused, ill or grieving; our incomes, bank balances, credit scores and spending habits. Technological change is bringing new opportunities to collect new kinds of data all the time. Self-driving cars know just where their passengers go, for instance — and when they get home, Alexa's microphone is there in the kitchen or bedroom, ready to listen.

In short, powerful actors are creating the most intrusive surveillance society in history. What’s more, they're constantly getting hacked by a motley crew of international criminals. As Uber showed, they can't even be trusted to tell us when such thefts happen.

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Given all that, you'd think Californians would be talking constantly about privacy policy, not just in the public sector, where law enforcement’s ability to spy on people is at least a subject of occasional legislation, but in the private sector, where there are no 4th Amendment protections against “unreasonable” searches.

It ought to be on our lips at the dinner table, the coffee shop, the bar stool and the Tindr date with the tech investor. "What exactly is your company doing with all that data?"

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But it isn’t.

Although California is America's most populous state, the center of the technology industry, and home to many of the most influential thinkers, investors and entrepreneurs in tech, its elected officials and residents are mostly disengaged on privacy policy. Of course there are exceptions. There are not enough exceptions, however, to have made the issue a priority in the upcoming gubernatorial election, or the subject of a major ballot initiative. There are not enough exceptions to make tech employees feel social pressure if their employer actively undermines the much-diminished privacy we still enjoy.

Doing much better is within reach.

Given our proximity to tech's heaviest hitters, Californians could be having the most sophisticated debate about the future of privacy in the world, and asking tough questions.

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Should companies be permitted to keep user data indefinitely? To unilaterally change their terms of service in ways that retroactively implicate privacy? To secretly share data with governments? Should one tech company be able to sell data while, say, discharging debt in bankruptcy? Do we need a requirement to anonymize or a mandate to purge data after a certain period of time?

What obligation do parents have, if any, to safeguard the privacy of their children? If Instagram tracks the behavior of kids before they reach the age of consent, should they get to keep the data when they’re adults?

Californians could be having the most sophisticated debate about the future of privacy in the world, and asking tough questions.


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An old law illustrates how out-of-date Californians are in grappling with these questions: the one that prohibits a California resident from recording a telephone call without telling the other party. I'm not saying that's a bad law — just that it imposes a restriction on everyone, for the sake of privacy, more onerous than any that apply to some of the most intrusive data gathering in human history. It would be as if our revenge porn laws in 2018 protected us only from unauthorized magazine centerfolds.

Thoughtlessly, "we have subjected ourselves to relentless, intrusive, comprehensive surveillance of all our activities,” as the Irish academic John Naughton put it, “and we have no idea what the long-term implications of this will be.”

Some are oblivious to the threat; others are paralyzed by the seeming impossibility of imposing limits. But privacy is something most people value, and better policy can shape better outcomes. Insofar as it is possible to stave off dystopian threats, shouldn't we a least make a priority of doing our hopeful best? Californians, positioned as well as anyone on Earth to do so, haven't yet tried.

Conor Friedersdorf is a contributing writer to Opinion, a staff writer at the Atlantic and founding editor of the Best of Journalism, a newsletter that curates exceptional nonfiction.

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