A steady stream of the new startups pitch their ideas, concepts, products and services to australiabusinessblog.com reporters daily: startups that claim to predict when employees will want to leave for a new job; who think they can detect depression using someone’s voice; that experiment by using chatbots on patients with depression; who scour the internet for faces so the police can monitor facial recognition.
And more than most of these startups terrify me.
A lot of attention today is focused on TikTok, the viral video-sharing app from the Chinese company ByteDance, which is being banned due to fears that the data collected will end up in the hands of the Chinese government.
It’s not an unreasonable fear, especially with over a billion users worldwide using the app. But TikTok isn’t the only company that can share data with China. Thousands of US apps and companies sharing our information with advertisers and data brokers, who also expose that data to China, largely because nothing exists for it curb data sharing or selling to anyone who wants it, from startups to authoritarian regimes.
But as legislators and the government fixate endlessly on TikTok and China, they continue to ignore the bigger problem, which is at home. The scary calls come from inside America’s home.
All startups compete for the next generation of Amazons, Ubers, Facebooks and Googles, and look up to these American tech giants with dollar signs in their eyes. But if money is the measure, it’s worth looking at how the Amazons, Ubers, Facebooks, and Googles got here. It is thanks to our data that so many tech giants (but not all) have made their billions. Some call it innovation and disruption; others see it as exploitation.
Just look at the mess the first generation of tech titans have made. We’ve seen how our data is used by companies to consolidate power, such as market share or user share, to make money. When Amazon isn’t subduing its employees by meticulously tracking their toilet habits, it’s using data to drive out competitors and small businesses to boost its own sales. Uber played fast and loose with its security and privacy practices for years, then tried to cover up a massive data breach. Facebook was used to incite a literal genocide that led to a whole company rebranding. And Google’s data practices pretty much keep the US Department of Justice’s antitrust division in business.
These data-hungry technology companies have compromised our security, eroded our privacy, tracked us, sold our data, lost our data, monopolized the competition, displaced small businesses, and endangered entire populations.
Lack of regulation has allowed U.S. tech companies to thrive and grow enriched with our personal information and data we’ve created, including everything from where we go, to what we buy, to the people we interact with, to the content that we consume. If the adage that data is the new currency is true, it’s no wonder tech companies are getting richer and richer. There are few rules for what companies can do with our information, but there are plenty of profitable scenarios to work from. Every day a new group of startups has their sights set on our data, but what hope do we have as consumers facing today’s technology if the conditions for our security and privacy are worse?
Unlikely as it is, a nationwide TikTok ban wouldn’t prevent Americans’ data from ending up in China. The data must be removed at its source – by not allowing US tech companies to collect large amounts of data from people’s devices in the first place.
America stands alone as one of the few great powers without a data protection or privacy law. It is this uncontrolled and unregulated environment that allows Americans’ data to end up in the hands of China or someone willing to pay for it. It’s not easy to draft a federal privacy law that spans the entire country and make sure it actually works. That’s why every state regulates differently.
California was the first state to offer strong consumer and data protections to its residents, giving Californians the right to access, modify, and delete the data companies collect about them. California’s consumer privacy law is considered one of the strictest in the country – because it worked. Companies in the state, home to Silicon Valley and its tech titans, have had to comply and make deep exceptions for millions of Californians from their data collection practices. But as a result, the millions of remaining Americans still lack privacy protections.
Only a handful of states have followed in California’s footsteps, but few new laws have reached the same bar, thanks to the corrupt (or lazy) legislators who have watered down the bills in their states to serve the interests of the lobbying firms. Meanwhile, the tech lobby is fervently support a federal law aiming to create a weaker set of rules in the US to replace the patchwork of state laws, including California’s.
Today’s startups should put you off because of their almost unfettered and unbridled ability to do almost anything with our information and suffer little to no repercussions. Even where tech giants have historically broken their own security and privacy promises, regulators are under-resourced and massively outnumbered, lacking the enforcement powers to meaningfully hold repeat offenders accountable.
Without guardrails to protect our data, today’s and tomorrow’s startups are doomed to make the same mistakes of yesteryear.