Why Americans have to talk about digital privacy at the kitchen table

Why Americans have to talk about digital privacy at the kitchen table
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As we huddle in our homes for remote work, school, and life, our country has been dramatically transformed within weeks to one that is operating largely online, as millions stay tethered to their screens on various digital devices for most waking hours. This increased use of and dependence on networks, websites, and apps enable us to undertake daily activities while social distancing. Whether we are applying for jobs, seeking government financial assistance, or enabling telehealth diagnoses, there is no doubt that digital privacy finally has reached the kitchen table.

The kitchen table metaphor is a staple of politics. People care most about issues that affect their livelihoods, education, and health care. This makes sense because it reflects the set of public policy concerns that are of the highest priority to the broadest range of citizens. Government officials at all levels, especially those who serve at the pleasure of voters, are indeed understandably sensitive to kitchen table issues because they serve as a proxy for what matters most to vast numbers of people.

Anyone who ever has attended or viewed a town hall with the candidates of either party has seen kitchen table issues prominently on display. Will jobs continue to disappear? Will health care be accessible and affordable? What will be the burdens of student debt? These topics consistently have dominated such sessions as they should. But moving forward, they will be filtered through the lens of a country after a pandemic, where all of these concerns will be both more acute and more difficult to address given the many uncertainties that the coronavirus brings with it.

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Digital privacy has been discussed across the Atlantic Ocean, where the European Union enacted the General Data Protection Regulation in 2018, on the West Coast, where the California Consumer Privacy Act took effect earlier this year, in more than 20 other states considering legislation, and in Congress. There are various legal and policy proposals that have been raised but thus far not finalized. But the challenges of a recovery may put some of these on the back burner for the rest of the year.

Ironically, this retreat from such proposals may come during a time when more citizens of all ages across the country are becoming more sensitive to digital privacy concerns. The intensity of our online lives, the variety of new digital devices, and the large increase in the collection, storage, and dissemination of personally identifiable information is bringing our digital privacy to the kitchen table like never before in history.

Even public health measures such as contact tracing through location tracking underscore that virtually all aspects of working, studying, and staying healthy involve risks to the security of our online identities. Not surprisingly, bad actors are set to take advantage of the crisis through malware, phishing, and aggressive hacking activities.

But in a crisis, there is also opportunity. Sheltered in place, Americans are uniquely positioned to have kitchen table conversations with all members of their household. How is each person interacting online? What measures should they take to assist in protecting their own transmission of sensitive information? What informational requests are they receiving from others? How vital will this information be to getting or keeping a job, completing important coursework, or receiving timely health care?

Once these candid conversations take place among family members, it will then be important to share digital privacy perspectives with elected representatives and their challengers throughout this election year. This means asking questions about digital privacy in town halls, including the town halls that will take place virtually instead of in crowded community centers, and engaging with lawmakers and candidates.

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Policy approaches for digital privacy protection thus far have been mostly formulated from the top down, with little input from the public regarding their actual concerns about greater digital privacy protection. With this issue now among those meriting serious discussion at the kitchen table, the stage is set for officials to formulate the digital privacy policies that reflect critical real world concerns and practices.

This input and feedback can help to ensure that digital privacy protection remains top of mind for government officials as an important aspect of a national recovery moving forward. Our new base of collective experience can help sharpen the focus of officials addressing this issue by enabling a far more complete perspective about what greater privacy protections are needed in our permanently expanded digital lives.

Stuart Brotman is a former government official and fellow in digital privacy policy issues with the Science and Technology Innovation Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars based in Washington.