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Kashmir Hill: More people than ever care about privacy

On 11 december 2017 Kashmir Hill was awarded the Felipe Rodriguez Award for her outstanding journalistic contribution to privacy. In her acceptance speech she argues that today more people than ever care about privacy and that Europe is leading the way when it comes to protecting it.

Thank you so much for this award and for bringing me to Amsterdam to receive it. As a person who’s spent the last decade writing about privacy law, it’s really refreshing to get away from America and come to a place where it actually exists. Privacy is sacred and absolutely respected here, right?

I have a confession to make. When I first started writing about privacy and technology 10 years ago on a blog I named The Not-So Private PartsThe Not-So Private Parts, I considered myself a privacy skeptic. I thought the media were often alarmist when writing about privacy violations by tech companies and that they weren’t putting enough emphasis on all the benefits that come from living a more open, more tracked, and more quantified life. Free email! Google Flu Trends! Ads that offer you things you actually want to buy! The ability to Facebook stalk all of your exes!

But one day pretty early in my career, the Wall Street Journal asked me to write an op-ed about why privacy was overrated and should be killed off. I had a month to do it, and every day I’d sit down and try to write it and I couldn’t. I couldn’t because I didn’t believe it. My stories were about how easy it was to capture information about us, about putting us into massive databases, about predicting our behavior. And about people abusing one another’s privacy, by posting “revenge porn” for example, where people’s exes would post their naked photos online and there was little those people could do about it. And I was increasingly finding what I was writing very disturbing.

I realized I wasn’t a skeptic. I was a pragmatist. There are certainly privacy trade-offs in the modern world and ideally, we’d be able to pick and choose them in an informed way. Like, yes, I want a smart TV that takes voice commands but no I don’t want it to secretly record all the shows I watch so it can sell the intel.

“It’s just for ads” doesn’t hold up as well anymore, because we’ve seen so many nefarious uses of ads.

After that intellectual shift, I found myself fighting against the opinions I’d previously held. The type of people who think “creepy tracking is ok because it makes the Internet free”. Those people are really annoying! So I apologize for once being one of them.

And since then, I’ve tried to document the real harm that results from tech company practices. This year, I’ve been obsessed with Facebook’s People You May Know which mines everybody’s contact books to figure out who is connected. The downside to that invasive data mining is connections that shouldn’t be made, as when it outs sex workers’ real identitiesHow Facebook Outs Sex Workers to their clients or recommends that a psychiatrist’s patients friend each otherFacebook recommended that this psychiatrist's patients friend each other. (Which have both happened. I wrote about it.)

Last year, I found a home in the middle of America whose residents had been tormented for yearsHow an internet mapping glitch turned a random Kansas farm into a digital hell by police, the FBI, tax authorities, Internet vigilantes. They’d been accused of identity theft, spam, making child porn, and lots of other crimes. And it was all because of bad databasing by a company that helps geotarget ads.

For years, American consumers have benefitted from the trickle-down effect of privacy enforcement in Europe.

Bits of Freedom told me that I’m supposed to deliver some good news tonight, and I think the good news is that this was the year that a lot of “oh, it’s just for advertising” people in the U.S. got converted, just like I did so many years ago. “It’s just for ads” doesn’t hold up as well anymore, because we’ve seen so many nefarious uses of ads. From ads geotargeted to abortion clinics to inflict emotional harm on women exercising their right to choose to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube ads being wielded by foreign powers to sway elections. All of a sudden, even the privacy skeptics started growing concerned about the way tech companies’ tools and vast stores of data about us can be turned to dystopian ends.

Kashmir Hill op video in de Stadsschouwburg Amsterdam

Kashmir Hill at the Big Brother Awards from Barcelona's airport (photo: Reinoud van Leeuwen)

So the good news is that all the disturbing news from this year means more Americans than ever before care about privacy. And from conversations I've had, it seems to even include people at the tech companies.

I joked about the perfection of the privacy regime here in Europe at the beginning of this speech, but it is a model to aspire to. For years, American consumers have benefitted from the trickle-down effect of privacy enforcement in Europe. It’s the reason for example that Americans can now ask Google not to link to naked photos their exes have posted online. As America reckons more seriously with new threats to privacy, we'll likely look to the European model to create a robust, legal right to privacy and control over information about us. At the very least, I desperately hope we get the right to access law you have here and not just because the ability to demand information from tech companies would really help with my journalism.

Thank you so much.

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