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Opinion | Kathryn Sikkink

Wake up, hapless technology users

The “Facebook Innovation Hub” in Berlin.
The “Facebook Innovation Hub” in Berlin.(TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

In the wake of the revelations about Cambridge Analytica’s misuse of Facebook data, crucial concerns about the failure of corporations and government to protect our rights to privacy have been raised. But in the midst of these legitimate demands, once again any discussion of individual responsibilities seems to be absent. Individuals are portrayed as the hapless and innocent victims of greedy corporations and indifferent governments.

Wake up, users of technology! You are not just a hapless victim, but you too have obligations — along with, of course, the multiple obligations of governments and corporations. We all should know by now that our smartphones are little spy machines that we carry around in our pockets, and our Facebook pages are open invitations for violations of privacy. They are usually benevolent spy machines, and certainly, indispensable ones, but spy machines nonetheless. I say benevolent because Apple and Facebook tell us that the main reason for the spying is to curate marketing messages to meet our many material needs more efficiently. But this benevolent view can rapidly degrade into manipulation and abuse when unscrupulous, self-interested, and insufficiently regulated political and economic actors get involved. Even if we don’t care about our own privacy, the Cambridge Analytica scandal has made clear that we have responsibility to protect the privacy of our friends and contacts.

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I include myself as one of these clueless technology users, which is why I am so hard on us. Just today, reading the story about Cambridge Analytica, I decided for the first time to seriously check out the privacy settings on my iPhone, only to discover that it has been cheerfully broadcasting my data to anyone who is interested, even though options have long existed for me to block at least a large part of that access.

Not surprisingly, corporations that receive an important part of their income from selling our data don’t make it easy for us to block their ability to profit from us. If you want to start blocking the ability of your phone to be such an effective spy device, you need to search in three or four places in the settings, and follow somewhat obscure directions. Sometimes you have to turn things on (e.g., turn on “limit ad tracking”) and sometimes you have to turn things off (e.g., turn off “share iPhone analytics”) and sometimes you have to leave some things on (e.g., leave “location services” on so your map program or Lyft works) but then go one by one and turn off the location services for most of your apps that have no need for it. You can take related measures on Facebook by going to settings and clicking “disable platform” under the setting for apps, websites, and plugins.

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Corporations (and most governments) will not act to respect our rights unless we demand them. But corporations are unlikely to take action unless it affects their bottom line. Until Facebook faces some concerted consumer pressure, perhaps in the form of an organized boycott or cancellations or suspensions of accounts, it may not respond appropriately. But Facebook and Apple hold us hostage. We have so much information and history in our Apple or Facebook accounts that the cost of canceling an account is much greater for the user than the company. At a minimum, we technology users need to stop acting like clueless victims and pressure our governments and companies to live up to their obligations to protect our rights. The tutorials we need are indeed Privacy for Dummies.

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Kathryn Sikkink is a professor of human rights policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and a professor at Radcliffe.