The great threat of surveillance is not so much Big Brother anymore; it's Big Data. As more and more of life moves online — from remote work to binge-watching on Netflix — the possibility of internet confidentiality grows ever dimmer. Now add to that the Republicans' recent repeal of privacy laws, a move that makes it legal for web providers like Verizon and Comcast to collect and sell the browsing history of all their customers.
Are we in 1984 yet? Not quite, if Adam McElhaney's subversive GoFundMe gambit works. But his plot to purchase and then publish the internet history of the "legislators, congressmen, executives, and their families" involved in the repeal raises some ethical questions.
For AT&T Inc., Comcast Inc., and Verizon Communications Inc., S.J.Res 34 that passed Tuesday in the Senate is all about advertising. These web service providers are now free to profit off consumers' information by selling highly-individualized data to top dollar advertisers. Notably, sites such as Google and Facebook do this already, but advocates for internet privacy point out that web servers have access to much, much more of a person's online activities: In fact, they could theoretically map out all of a user's internet history.
Hey, look! Let's buy the internet histories of all the politicians who just voted to sell privacy as a commodity. https://t.co/AZhikug676— Andrea Gabriel (@AGabrielArt) March 29, 2017
For the sake of a buck, it seems some congresspeople are willing to sell out their constituents pretty cheap. After all, unlike Google or Facebook, many people simply do not have a choice in the web server available to them. It's either lose one's privacy or live off the grid.
But Adam McElhaney is proposing to do something about this, and it's a pretty wild idea. He recently started a GoFundMe page that is raising money to purchase the browsing history of those behind the recent privacy repeal. According to Twitter, the legislator whose internet details are most desired is Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
McElhaney launched his GoFundMe page on March 25, and he's not alone in this idea. Max Temkin, the creator of Cards Against Humanity, also tweeted out on March 27 that "If this shit passes I will buy the browser history of every congressman and congressional aide and publish it." Well, looks like he'll have some competition for those purchases.
But as Joon Ian Wong explains on Quartz, the process of finding a particular person in a data mine can be a huge task. It would require tech savvy and time devotion, not to mention the fact that this information will probably not be available for individual buyers. To get access, you'll need to be a registered business or corporation.
Perhaps the biggest problem for McElhaney and Temkin is that exposing private details in the name of defending privacy is a tough sell. Further complicating things in the realm of ethics is the involvement of innocent parties. Taylor Hatmaker points out for TechCrunch, "[T]he GoFundMe wants to target not only the politicians and the telecom fat cats, but also their families (check the fine print). Not cool."
Still, it's also not cool that advertisers and web providers are making huge profits off information given without consent, and without reimbursement. Even less cool is the potential to use this information against someone — whether it's revenge or blackmail. The best possible outcome now would be a miracle veto from President Trump. But outside of wishful thinking, Americans should lobby their representatives to reinstate privacy laws that protect web users (read: almost everybody) from such a threat.