Q&A: The Markup’s Nabiha Syed

Privacy Has Its Roots in Outrage

By C.J. Thompson

Nabiha Syed is a media attorney and president of The Markup, an independent news website dedicated to illuminating concerning privacy issues.

“Part of our mission is to help people understand exactly how their privacy is being affected by technology,” she told Digital Privacy News.

The need for new privacy laws and regulation are primary components of a landscape that has never been more complex, cluttered — and, in many ways — cloaked.

But Syed remains encouraged by the current wave of public activism, as it is exactly what’s needed to provoke meaningful privacy protections. 

What is a promising privacy front right now? 

We are seeing positive baby steps when it comes to the law-enforcement use of facial-recognition technology.

Recently, Microsoft, IBM, and Amazon withdrew from the market — at least for now.

That said, the fight is just beginning: Other vendors have affirmed their commitment to providing facial-recognition technology to law enforcement, even amidst concerns of mass surveillance and racial profiling.

While these companies have asked for federal legislation to guide the use of facial-recognition technology, they have also pushed back against tougher regulations in states like Washington and California.

So, we have a long way to go.

But I am optimistic that a groundswell of public pressure can help keep the momentum going towards more strict legislation.

How effective has reactive public outrage been at causing privacy-related legislation to be passed? 

Privacy, as a legal concept in America, has its roots in outrage!

All the way back in 1890, Samuel Warren and future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis wrote a law-review article about the right to be left alone — laying the groundwork for privacy legislation.

Outrage often follows what is perceived as a lack of control. 

But the trouble now is two-fold: First, getting the public to understand exactly how their privacy is being invaded — because it’s more opaque and hidden.

Once people are informed and outraged, the second problem is sustaining that outrage to create enough pressure for legislators to do something about the issue.

This is exacerbated by savvy lobbyists, hired by Big Tech, that can outgun, outmaneuver and outlast public pressure.

But we live in interesting times. We are watching this change before our eyes.

The public is learning about tools like Stingrays, for example, amidst a national conversation about racist overpolicing.

While that dynamic may have stymied legislation in recent years, I have faith in the power of outrage to drive privacy legislation in the future. 

Are there any provocative privacy issues that remain beneath most people’s radar?

We are not talking enough about the use of biometrics in the workplace.

Workplaces, from Hooters to Hyatt Hotels, use time-clock machines that fingerprint employees … because employers want streamlined ways to track workers’ attendance and provide a higher level of workplace security.

The risk of biometric information in the wrong hands is serious — and I see very little conversation about it.

Do you feel the police and other public entities should have much less data-privacy with respect to what they do?

I have little sympathy for the privacy concerns of those who wield the power of the state.

The First Amendment protects the right to record police exercising their official duties in public.

Why? Because law-enforcement entities are acting in the public interest and are given tremendous force to do so.

At bare minimum, the public deserves oversight of that force.

Camera phones are one piece of that oversight puzzle.

Has public awareness about privacy issues risen more sharply in light of recent crises like COVID-19, unemployment and police brutality? 

Absolutely. There is more awareness now than before.

If you have control over how you are perceived in the world, and over the information that is used to make decisions about your life, that’s a good thing.

All of the current crises touch on people’s individual and collective ability to make decisions about their lives, whether it’s the ability to go outside freely, to make enough money to sustain yourself — or whether you can even breathe.

It’s no wonder that we are talking more about privacy and control than we have in years.

The questions we face now are tangible and affect everyday decision-making.

This is a new inflection point. 

Are there any self-protection measures that you recommend to safeguard personal privacy?

On an individual level, I encourage people to educate themselves on ways that data about you — your location, your preferences, your personal habits, your health history — is collected, sold and repurposed in ways you could hardly imagine. 

But I want to be careful here. The privacy problem in America can’t be solved by individuals making better choices.

The scale of the issue requires regulatory intervention — and, so, perhaps the best advice I could give to an individual is to get involved politically.

The nexus between private surveillance and government surveillance is a great danger. 

C.J. Thompson is a New York writer.

Filed under: