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Fixing online privacy

Robert Sloan

Buying and selling your online data is a multibillion-dollar business. Private companies surveil the websites you visit, the products you buy, public records, and many other things. They construct a digital profile of you, but how is this information ultimately used? And why can’t we control our data?

Robert Sloan, professor and department head of UIC’s computer science department, says there is a breakdown in informational privacy. He and Richard Warner, a professor and faculty director of the Center for Law and Computers at Chicago-Kent College of Law, have written the book, “The Privacy Fix: How to Preserve Privacy in the Onslaught of Surveillance,” published in late 2021 by Cambridge Press. The book explores the intersection of contemporary law, public policy, and computer science.

“An essential aspect of privacy consists of people’s trust in each other to respect your expectation about the selective flow of information,” Sloan said in an interview.

In The Privacy Fix, the authors detail how commonplace surveillance changes the way people relate to businesses, governments, and one another. Surveillance systems tend to expand, covering more people, and more of their lives. This surveillance capitalism system uses our lives as free raw material to construct behavioral data and artificial intelligence models.

“There has been a breakdown of privacy, and it’s been exacerbated by increasing reliance on algorithms to apportion rewards and penalties on the public,” Sloan said.

Examples may include bankruptcy, which can hinder the ability to obtain credit at a reasonable rate, or even at all. But the cause of the bankruptcy isn’t considered in the behavioral model: was it due to a child’s illness, or to spending beyond your means?

The ability of businesses to create a more complete picture of you can actively work against you, or provide rewards that were simply given to you based on certain aspects of your online data. These variables can include things such as if you live in a high- or low-crime area, how good the schools are near to your home, your gender, or your race. If a model has trained on data showing these things to be either beneficial or detrimental, you can be affected by things largely out of your control.

Sloan and Warner suggest a number of ways to level the playing field, relying on a regulatory body similar to the Federal Trade Commission in the U.S. They include methods to evaluate AI systems, a broad investigative power to examine unfairness, access to expertise, and market freedom to allocate benefits where they are lacking over many people.

“We need to create new norms,” Sloan said. “People can disagree on the fix, but AI can generate an unfair tilt of the playing field.”

The book can be obtained from Cambridge Press or through other retailers.