The bipartisan reason Congress should regulate big tech
In Wyoming, privacy is a way of life. We are the smallest state by population, but among the largest in physical size. Privacy is baked into our lifestyles since many in the Cowboy State live miles from their nearest neighbor.
The internet has aided our relatively isolated way of life. It has enabled us to more easily keep in touch with relatives, conduct business, and entertain ourselves. But it has not changed that very Wyoming desire for personal privacy.
What concerns me, is that some of the companies serving as the chief enablers of our connected lifestyles and internet access are undermining our privacy rights. And they are doing so in broad daylight, but going mostly undetected.
Let’s start with the latest example: Apple. Apple recently announced a welcomed delay to its program that would have begun scanning iPhones for images of child abuse. Now, let’s start with the obvious: as a mother and grandmother, I abhor child abuse. But, Americans must take threats to their civil liberties seriously. In fact, reports claim that some of Apple’s own employees were protesting against the adoption of this new policy, fearing that it could be exploited by bad actors. Thankfully, your voices were heard, but we must remain vigilant.
It was only a few years ago that Apple fought the U.S. government tooth and nail when the FBI pressured them to unlock a terrorist’s iPhone. Even by considering this proposal, it seems those days are long gone. And when the government pressures private companies to invade your privacy, every American should be concerned. The reason is simple: we oppose the creation of a surveillance state. Once built, who’s left to stop this technology from being repurposed to surveil other intimate parts of our lives, or to monitor political speech, as they already do in China or Russia?
And what about Facebook? For several years, Facebook has created “shadow profiles” of non-Facebook users for its own ad services. The data it collects on each person allows Facebook to build a comprehensive profile of a person who is largely unaware that it is happening, and is unable to control it. This means if you’ve never had a Facebook profile, but your friends do, then Facebook uses information posted about you and compiles it into a “shadow profile.” Unlike users, you never gave Facebook any information about yourself. Frankly, Facebook doesn’t care. This raises all kinds of red flags.
Up next is Google’s Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLoC. FLoC is Google’s replacement for third-party trackers. Rather than individualized ads based on your browsing history, Google uses FLoC to place users into an anonymous cohort with other users based on web searches and other behavior. This is troublesome because, for example, a user might be placed into a mental health related cohort for googling about substance abuse treatments. Additionally, this means that your browsing history is still being tracked. It is entirely possible that, despite Google’s efforts, it will be easier for companies down the road to reverse engineer, or “fingerprint,” exactly who a user is based on these cohorts.
Finally, Amazon. Amazon recently received approval from the FCC to use radar technology to monitor your sleep habits and “motion in a three-dimensional space.” This technology has not been implemented yet, but Amazon is clearly gearing up for deployment. Certain Amazon hardware like Alexa has already been shown to continuously “listen” to pretty much every conversation within its radius, but this 3-D monitoring is a realm of science fiction that we have never before realized. If we can’t enjoy privacy in our own bedroom, then what is left?
This is not a comprehensive list, just some of the most egregious examples from the largest tech companies. These are also not instances of political policing or preference. The right to privacy is a bipartisan issue.
Such actions are incredibly alarming and sobering. However, ultimate blame belongs with Congress, for not taking action.
As a freshman senator, I have been mostly sitting on the sidelines of the big tech debate, monitoring the issue and learning. Unfortunately, our tech companies are not quietly waiting for us to come up with confines for them. They are innovating and pushing boundaries because we have not set any.
It’s time to act, and I look forward to learning more at this week’s Senate Commerce Committee hearings on protecting consumer privacy. In the privacy-loving Cowboy State, we know that fences make good neighbors. It’s time Congress puts up some fences around big tech.
Senator Cynthia Lummis is the junior senator from Wyoming.
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