Rporters hear from a steady stream of new startups every day about their ideas, concepts, products, and services. Startups that say they can tell when an employee might want to leave for a new job, that think they can tell if someone is depressed by listening to their voice, that test chatbots on depressed patients, and that scrape the internet for faces so police can use facial recognition to keep an eye on people
And these startups scare me even more than most of them do.
Today, a lot of attention is focused on the popular video-sharing app TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. It is facing bans because people are afraid that the information it collects will end up in the hands of the Chinese government.
It’s not a crazy worry, especially since over a billion people around the world use the app. But TikTok isn’t the only business that can send information to China. Thousands of American apps and companies give our information to advertisers and data brokers, who then send it to China. This is mostly because there are no rules against giving or selling data to anyone who wants it, from startups to dictatorships.
But while politicians and the government keep talking about TikTok and China, they keep ignoring the bigger problem, which is at home. America’s house is where the scary calls are coming from.
All startups want to be the next Amazon, Uber, Facebook, or Google, and they all look up to these American tech giants and see money. But if money is the only thing that matters, we should look at how Amazon, Uber, Facebook, and Google got where they are. So many tech giants, but not all, made their billions off of our data. Some people call it innovation and disruption, and others call it taking advantage of people.
Just look at the mess that the first generation of tech titans has made. We’ve seen how companies use our information to gain market or user share and make money. When Amazon isn’t making its employees feel bad by keeping track of how they use the bathroom, it uses data to push out competitors and small businesses to boost its own sales. Uber’s security and privacy practices were sloppy for years, and then the company tried to hide a huge data breach. Facebook was used to start a real genocide, which led to a rebranding of the whole company. And the way Google handles data pretty much keeps the antitrust division of the U.S. Justice Department in business.
These data-hungry tech companies have put our security and privacy at risk, followed us, sold our data, lost our data, monopolized the market, put small businesses out of business, and put whole populations at risk.
Because there isn’t much in the way of law and regulation, American tech companies have been able to grow and thrive by using our personal information and data, such as where we go, what we buy, who we talk to, and what we watch. If the saying that “data is the new currency” is true, it makes sense that tech companies keep getting richer. Companies have few rules about what they can do with our information, but they have plenty of ways to make money. Every day, a new group of startups wants our information, but as users of today’s technology, what can we do when our security and privacy are getting worse?
Even though it seems unlikely, a national ban on TikTok wouldn’t stop the data of American users from going to China. Stopping the data at its source means not letting American tech companies collect huge amounts of data from people’s devices in the first place.
America is one of the few superpowers that doesn’t have a law to protect data or privacy. Because there are no rules or controls, data about Americans can end up in the hands of China or anyone else who will pay for it. It’s not easy to make a federal privacy law that applies to the whole country and makes it work. This is why the laws in each state are different.
California was the first state to give its residents strong consumer and data protections, giving them the right to see, change, and delete the information that companies collect about them. People think that California’s law on consumer privacy is one of the strongest in the country because it works. Companies in the state, which is home to Silicon Valley and its tech giants, had to follow the rules and make big changes to how they collected data on millions of Californians. But that still doesn’t protect the privacy of millions of other Americans.
Only a few states have followed California’s lead, but few new laws have met the same high standard. This is because corrupt (or just lazy) lawmakers in those states watered down the draft bills to help lobbying companies. The tech lobby, on the other hand, is pushing hard for a federal law that would replace the patchwork of state laws, including California’s, with a weaker set of rules for the whole country.
Startups today should scare you because they can do almost anything with our information and almost never get caught or punished for it. Even when tech giants have broken their own promises about security and privacy in the past, regulators are underfunded and outnumbered and don’t have the power to hold repeat offenders accountable.
Without rules to protect our data, startups of today and tomorrow will make the same mistakes as startups of the past.