Privacy's Last Gasp

We’ve been sliding down the slippery slope of privacy rights for some time. But like everything else in the world, the rapid onslaught of disruption caused by AI is unfurling a massive red flag when it comes to any illusions we may have about our privacy.

We have been giving away a massive amount of our personal data for years now without really considering the consequences. If we do think about privacy, we do so as we hear about massive data breaches. Our concern typically is about our data falling into the hands of hackers and being used for criminal purposes.

But when you combine AI and data, a bigger concern should catch our attention. Even if we have been able to retain some degree of anonymity, this is no longer the case. Everything we do is now traceable back to us.

Major tech platforms generally deal with any privacy concerns with the same assurance: “Don’t worry, your data is anonymized!” But really, even anonymized data requires very few dots to be connected to relink the data back to your identify.



Here is an example from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Let’s say there is data that includes your name, your ZIP or postal code, your gender and your birthdate. If you remove your name, but include those other identifiers, technically that data is now anonymized.

But, says the EEF:

  • First, think about the number of people that share your specific ZIP or postal code. 
  • Next, think about how many of those people also share your birthday. 
  • Now, think about how many people share your exact birthday, ZIP code, and gender.

According to a study from Carnegie Mellon University, those three factors are all that’s needed to identify 87% of the U.S. population. If we fold in AI and its ability to quickly crunch massively large data sets to identify patterns, that percentage effectively becomes 100% and the data horizon expands to include pretty much everything we say, post, do or think.

We may not think so, but we are constantly in the digital data spotlight and it’s a good bet that somebody, somewhere is watching our supposedly anonymous activities.

The other shred of comfort we tend to cling to when we trade away our privacy is that at least the data is held by companies we are familiar with, such as Google and Facebook. But according to a recent survey by Merkle reported on in MediaPost’s Email Insider by Ray Schultz, even that small comfort may be slipping from our grasp. Fifty eight percent of respondents said they were concerned about whether their data and privacy identity were being protected.

Let’s face it. If a platform is supported by advertising, then that platform will continue to develop tools to more effectively identify and target prospects. You can’t do that and also effectively protect privacy. The two factors are diametrically opposed. The platforms are creating an ecosystem where it will become easier and easier to exploit individuals who thought they were protected by anonymity. And AI will exponentially accelerate the potential for that exploitation.

The platforms’ failure to protect individuals is currently being investigated by the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. The individuals in this case are children and the protection that has failed is against sexual exploitation. None of the platform executives giving testimony intended for this to happen. Mark Zuckerberg apologized to the parents at the hearing, saying, "I’m sorry for everything you’ve all gone through. It’s terrible.”

But this exploitation didn’t happen just because of one little crack in the system or because someone slipped up. It’s because Meta has intentionally and systematically been building a platform on which the data is collected and the audience is available that make this exploitation possible. It’s like a gun manufacturer standing up and saying, “I’m sorry. We never imagined our guns would be used to actually shoot people.”

The most important question is, do we care that our privacy has effectively been destroyed? Sure, when we’re asked in a survey if we’re worried, most of us say yes. But our actions say otherwise. Would we trade away the convenience and utility these platforms offer to get our privacy back? Probably not. And all the platforms know that.

As I said at the beginning, our privacy has been sliding down a slippery slope for a long time now. And with AI now in the picture, it’s probably going down for the last time. There is really no more slope left to slide down.

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