technology | July 18, 2019

Blurring the Boundaries of Privacy in a Digital Age: Tech Writer Susan Fowler Investigates for The New York Times

“The boundaries of privacy are in dispute, and its future is in doubt.” These are the words from the The Privacy Project, a limited-run newsletter in the New York Times that explores the blurring lines between public and private. Susan Fowler, the magazine’s Op-Ed Technology writer and #MeToo champion, explains the lessons she’s learned from the project. 


Privacy may be “complex, nebulous, and constantly evolving,” but there are a few basic themes emerging from the chaos, shares Susan Fowler in her latest New York Times opinion piece. The first being that surveillance technology is ubiquitous and surprisingly easy to useand therefore surprisingly easy to abuse. Throughout the article, Fowler offers several unsettling examples of the ways these tools have been both intentionally and unintentionally mismanaged.

 

Another emerging theme is that we don’t know much about where our data actually goes. “It might seem as if the trade-offs are clear and worthwhile—I give up my location data in exchange for access to Google Maps, for example—but the reality is darker and murkier,” writes Fowler, who compares the U.S. to a surveillance state much like China, albeit at the hands of private corporations instead of government. While personal data could be used to improve a company’s services, it could just as easily be used for political interference. We simply don’t know.

 

Thirdly, while privacy may seem like an abstract concept, it does affect people in tangible ways. Namely, immigrants, people of color, people living in poverty, and members of the LGBTQ community. Once again, Fowler gives several examples of the harrowing effects that excessive monitoring and privacy violations have the real world.

 

But although giving up privacy may often be negative, or at least ambiguous, the fourth theme Fowler points out is that it’s sometimes worthwhile to make the sacrifice. Depending on the value we receive in return, there can be real benefits to exchanging our information for products and services.

 

As a woman in STEM, Fowler understands how much work there is still to be done concerning privacy in a digital age. “The more we learn about privacy, the more there is to understand; every answer raises further questions. But we must keep investigating, and showing that we care, because if we act as if we don’t have a right to privacy, we run the risk of losing it.”

 

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