Democracies under attack as world grapples with privacy policies, watchdog says

Dr Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, says governments must fight the threat that data collection poses to our freedom of choice

Shoshanna Solomon was The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Illustrative: Democracy at work: casting a vote the old-fashioned way, in a ballot box. (Paperkites; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative: Democracy at work: casting a vote the old-fashioned way, in a ballot box. (Paperkites; iStock by Getty Images)

“Democracies globally are under huge attack,” and governments must work together to counter the threat that social media and the collection and sale of personal data poses on our freedom of choice, said Dr Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute who studies the impact of technology on democracy.

It is not enough to give people personal control over their data — as the new European Data Protection Regulation has set out to do. What needs to be done, and urgently, said Shwartz Altshuler, a former research fellow at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, is to set out standardized and global legislation that clearly states “what is forbidden to be collected.”

Biometric data, some of the healthcare data, and emotional and well-being data should all be out of bounds, she said.

As the world becomes more digitized and the use of internet, social media and online transactions mount, websites are increasingly using information about users’ online activity — what they buy, what they eat and where they travel.

Facebook co-founder, Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg departs after testifying before a combined Senate Judiciary and Commerce committee hearing in the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill April 10, 2018, in Washington, DC. Zuckerberg, 33, was called to testify after it was reported that 87 million Facebook users had their personal information harvested by Cambridge Analytica, a British political consulting firm linked to the Trump campaign. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images/afp)

The recent Cambridge Analytica scandal over the mishandled Facebook user data has further underlined the need for governments to protect the data of citizens globally.

With the advent of the Internet of Things, when all of our daily machines will become digitalized, occupied with sensors and connected to central databases, data privacy will become even more of an issue, Shwartz Altshuler said.

“A fridge will be able to recognize medication that is stored on its shelves, revealing information about the state of our health or mind,” she said. “A smart bed will be able to provide information about how well we slept last night. A sleepless person is more vulnerable to certain messages.” This data can be used by companies to target us with messages when we are at our most vulnerable, and susceptible. “Companies will know exactly what buttons to push to change your mind, and make you buy products or believe in ideas or vote for certain nominees,” she said.

The data issues governments worldwide are grappling with are a far cry from the hopes of increased openness and democracy that were hailed with the advent of the internet and then social media.

Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute. (Courtesy)

The internet was seen as the equalizer — making information available to all, while social media gave a voice to everyone. “That was the promise,” Shwartz Altshuler said. “People could tweet or post messages on social media just like a prime minister could do, and the feeling was that of empowerment.”

Things turned nasty when it became clear that companies like Facebook and other social media giants were using their platforms to collect data on users — what they read, what their political inclinations are, their state of mind, sexual tendencies — to create a profile of people to whom then ads and tailor-made messages can be sent.

“These companies were interested in creating network satisfaction, and their aim was selling ads, not necessarily boosting democratic discourse,” she said. And because on social media people tend to me more open and revealing about their feelings, opinions and state of mind than in personal meetings, the fruit was ripe for picking.

Shwartz Altshuler talks about what she calls the “autonomy traps” — when people think they are making an informed decision, based on their free will, but actually their opinions are being affected by the messages and information they are being fed via social media based on the precise emotional and behavioral profile social media companies created about them.

And therein lies the real threat to democracy, she warns. “Democracy is all about free choice, of knowledge and making a choice,” she said. “Companies or political parties have today the ability to know very intimate details about you to create a profile and use that profile to convince you about certain issues.”

So many times we think we are making our own informed choices, but these are actually the result of the messages and information we have been pervasively fed, without even noticing.

In Israel, the so-called Startup Nation, privacy laws are lagging and there is a “lack of legal tools” to deal with breaches of data privacy, she said. The first privacy bill was enacted in 1981 and then only updated once, in 1996, “which is forever, in digital terms.” The Israel Democracy Institute has helped formulate a new privacy bill which will be presented to government for consideration in the coming months, she said. “It will be a basic paper to outline processes and procedures,” she said.

“We need to take more responsibility as to what data can be transferred, especially in times of elections,” she said. “We shouldn’t be scared of technological progress. But we must have public discourse and we must ask the right questions. We must always ask, what happens if something goes wrong?”

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