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Security Over Privacy, and More Lessons About Our Data from Brittany Kaiser

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In a session that highlighted her background as well as her hopes for the future, data security advocate and Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Brittany Kaiser revealed, “you’re never getting your privacy back.”

Despite her best-known moment, Brittany Kaiser wants you to know: she’s not actually an advocate for privacy.

“I am not a privacy campaigner, which some people would be shocked to hear,” she said during her session “Own You Data: Lessons Learned from the Past to Protect Our Digital Future.” The activist and founder of the Digital Asset Trade Association detailed how she came to be a whistleblower for Cambridge Analytica, how she became passionate about data security, and what a path forward might look like in a world where many are unaware of the data they generate—or of its power.

“The Tip of the Iceberg”

Kaiser is best known for her March 2018 revelations about Cambridge Analytica, but has long been curious about the connection between data and politics. A onetime member of candidate Obama’s media team, she created his first Facebook account and pioneered the use of social media in political strategy and data collection. From there, she pursued law degrees and wrote a dissertation on how data could be used to prevent famine, poverty, and other societal atrocities.

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While writing, she signed on to work with Cambridge Analytica to learn more about data collection – and, she emphasized, “[about] all the good things it could do for people in order to create a better world.” But what she realized in the process was how “black-boxy” the industry had become. She left the company in January of 2018, but was spotlighted as part of the organization months after, when the company’s mishandling of data was revealed by another employee. This first person revealed that 87 million people’s data had been compromised; Kaiser went on the record to insist that it was far more than that. These 87 million people, as she put it, was “the tip of the iceberg.”

A lack of transparency about where data goes and who has it, combined with deliberately opaque terms and service, means that untold numbers of people have put their data out into the world with no idea where it went. To put it staggeringly simply, Kaiser says, “if you were on Facebook before April of 2015, I’m sorry to tell you, but you’re never getting your privacy back.”

Can Your Data Be Your Property?

For a number of reasons, Kaiser is actually okay with the idea of privacy going away…and instead favors data security over data privacy. Why? “Privacy is a scaremongering tactic that assumes people will abuse your data.” We keep things private, that we believe will be held against us. She instead wants to advocate for data security, which allows our information to be safe, used in ways that we know about and understand, and treated as our property.

By that, she points to landmark cases in Minnesota and Wyoming where the misuse of data has resulted in the awarding of damages – in a manner similar to if any other type of property (like a car, or money) was stolen. In the ideal scenario, we’d have control over the data we produce, and those who wanted to use it would have to ask permission. She likens the model to AirBnB, where someone wanting to stay in your home has to inform you, arrange payment, and tell follow rules that are mutually agreed upon. “Make it simple. Make it easy for people to know what they’re agreeing to, what’s being collected about them, and where it’s going to go.” Rulings like the GDPR in the EU, and California’s Consumer Privacy Act can assist with the permissions piece, but the next step in Kaiser’s eyes is to monetize the usage of this data – data that is incredibly valuable to those who benefit from its sale and usage.

“It’s Important that We Get This Right, and Get This Right As Soon as Possible.”

Kaiser shared that about two years ago, data surpassed oil and gas as the world’s most valuable asset. Moreover, we’re generating it at a faster clip than ever before…and stand to boost those numbers even further as IoT puts data tracking potential into nearly every facet of our daily lives. This will only heighten data’s value, and we should have a plan in place for how to secure and permit use of this valuable information. “It’s about to get a lot more intense,” she admitted.

But she also wants to point out that the sharing of this data—in secure ways, with the consent of the data’s generators—can actually do the world some good. “We need to make people feel secure in sharing their data, otherwise we’re never going to solve some of the world’s biggest problems.” Challenges in auto safety and development, healthcare, and other crucial fields benefit from having as diverse a data set as possible, and consensual sharing of data can play a part in that.

The right conversations are starting to happen, between treating data as property, proposed legislation to compensate people for their data, and a clearer understanding of what we’re doing when we click yes to a site’s terms and services. Ultimately, her goal is for people to feel a sense of empowerment around sharing their data: “we should feel comfortable being data inputs for big problems that affect us.”

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