It’s not too late for communities of color to reign in the surveillance business 

Congress is back in session. But while the tide may be turning in favor of consumer privacy and basic online protections, a draft bill failed to materialize before Labor Day. Legislative gridlock does not detract from the importance of other efforts to rein in the parochial interests of big tech platforms, such as federal investigations and state-led inquiries. Recent investigations have even sharpened the growing public mistrust and outcry over the increasing dominance of Facebook, Google, Amazon, and other major companies. It is clear that Congress must seek compromise, step in, and do more.   

Congressional action on privacy is urgent and necessary; the business models that are based on the surveillance of consumers continue to creep into several areas of public life. Meanwhile, large tech platforms show few signs of adopting meaningful consumer-centered reforms. From education to policing, the powerful are leveraging technology and data in ways that create privacy pitfalls for all of us. This is especially the case for communities that have been historically marginalized. Even as state officials take a high-profile lead, the lack of comprehensive federal privacy protections will likely hinder their ability to protect consumers. 

For example, cameras in doorbells and alarms allow huge companies to “create a surveillance network” that records and tracks us as we travel to the grocery store, doctor’s office, or to friends and family. Worse, a recent Vice investigation found that “people of color are once again being harmed.” They reviewed the popular Amazon Ring product and its companion app and reported that people of color were more likely to be reported as suspicious and that user comments were frequently racist and violent.  

Surveillance, including facial recognition, has also expanded to our schools, raising serious privacy concerns for our children.  This technology may be promoted to help reduce violence, but it seems inevitable that schools, law enforcement, and even anonymous kids or parents will use video to isolate or harass undocumented members of the community. 

These concerns are especially acute because of what the New York State ACLU has called, “well-documented issues with the accuracy of facial recognition technology, particularly when used to identify women and people of color.” Even more troubling is the knowledge that Amazon Ring is in partnership with more than 400 law enforcement agencies.   

In the midst of these and other privacy-related problems that stem from new technologies, immigrant consumers and consumers of color remain woefully unprotected against privacy abuses. Officials across the country must recognize that privacy risks involve far more than just our choice of websites. Policymakers in Washington must recommit themselves to passing comprehensive federal privacy legislation that keeps consumers safe on- and offline.  

The need for a new law is particularly clear given the surging growth in U.S. internet advertising dollars. In 2018, the industry was valued at $107 billion – up more than 20% from 2017. Moreover, just two companies, Google and Facebook, held about 60% of that revenue.  

Companies sustain this level of growth by stockpiling information about us. More than just information about our age, gender, and location; they gather data about the private habits and interests that shape our online experience, including the ads and news we see. Data about race or ethnicity for example can be used in ways that exacerbate bias and discrimination and contribute to widespread misinformation campaigns that target specific groups.  

As illustrated by recent examples, big tech’s surveillance business model increasingly has implications beyond our digital lives. The status quo wherein companies can hoard and sell mountains of confidential personal information without our consent creates a digital and physical environment that is ripe for unintended consequences. Congress must act to ensure that the principles of transparency and accountability are embedded into our technology tools and the laws that govern their use. Policies that limit unnecessary data collection, promote algorithmic transparency, and prioritize security are needed now more than ever. 

Federal investigations are important steps, but only a comprehensive federal law will provide the long-term, sustainable solution that will empower consumers of color and protect all communities.   


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