Looking Back at 2016 and Glimpsing at the New Year

Stan Ward

Stan Ward

January 3, 2017

Happy New Year everyone, from me and all of us at! Well, 2016 is in the books. And what a roller-coaster year it was! It’s now the perfect time to assess the impact of events that shaped this year, and to peer into 2017 to see what might be in store for us digitally and privacy-wise.

The past year saw a continued assault on privacy in communication from many quarters, and in all corners of the world. Sadly, these attacks did not just emanate from the typical repressive state actors, but also from places that like to think of themselves as bastions of democracy, like the US.

Looking at one of the supposed beacons of freedom, the US, attorney and law firm CEO Jay Edelson mused soon after the presidential election,

The Democratic administration has been pretty bad. So has the previous Republican administration. I don’t think it will be any worse under a Trump administration.

President Barack Obama, you may recall, was swept into office eight years ago vowing to oversee the “most transparent government in history.” Unfortunately, 2016 saw more government snooping than ever in our lives. History will record the opposite of transparency, as more journalists and whistleblowers were prosecuted on his watch than under any previous administration.

Mass surveillance also continued unabated – at break-neck speed at times.  Not only that, but the president, in fact, if he didn’t actually create it, enabled the “fake news” frenzy. He later lamented it as the cause of his rebuke at the polls, and with it Clinton’s loss and the further damage to his party.

Barack Obama trod on the truth, and thus jeopardized personal liberties by creating “echo chambers,” in which heretofore credible journalists parroted the pap being spewed by the White House on a bevy of issues – most notably the odious Iran nuclear deal. As a result, we are experiencing the echo chamber nature of social media.

More than ever, we are existing only within the communities we’ve built around ourselves, and hearing only the side of the story that fits our own narrative. Whether you choose to call it “echo chambers” or “fake news,” the result is the same – social media has run amok. It was a big story this year, and likely will be one again in 2017.

While the world was immersed in the drama that was the US elections, the UK continued its steady assault on personal privacy. It passed a bill in 2016 that legalized extensive surveillance, including bulk data collection and hacking provisions. The law requires internet and phone companies to store communication data that is generated by email, apps, and general internet use for 12 months, and to make that information accessible to the police and security services. That Russia and China continued their privacy purges is not surprising – for a democracy as storied as the UK, it is.

The private sector, notably Facebook, lost much credibility this past year by providing advertisers with questionable discrimination tools, and by putting your privacy up for sale. Thus, certain ethnicities, such as African-Americans and Hispanics were, by design, excluded from viewing certain ads. Facebook determined your race, religion, and other personal details by collecting data every time you “liked” something, posted a photo, or sent a personal message.

Then it sold this information, putting it out there for anyone to scrutinize. Additionally, they used the information to tailor things like newsfeeds to better tug at your emotions.

And, this past year, Facebook entered a dodgy arrangement with the Chinese government to enlarge its footprint and its coffers (let’s face it, that’s at the heart of it). In 2017, Facebook will continue to provide the Chinese government with access to all members’ data, including conversations, for more money and greater market access.

What Else Might 2017 Bring?

Naturally, thoughts immediately focus on further innovations in areas like AI, the IoT, and virtual experiences. We’ll see more focused advertising around us, not just on our computers. That is, personalized depending on your present location. This will be true whether you are in the car, in a bar, or walking into range on the street. The stark, scary reality is that technological innovation will continue to outpace our privacy protections. This will make it easier for governments and corporations to track our digital footprints in ways that were once unimaginable.

Media attention, including forums such as the one you’re reading now, may rise to the occasion, to call out these entities when they overreach. This is critical in the world after the Brexit vote and Trump’s election, especially for ensuring that our communications get to and stay with the right parties. If that means we, the public, can no longer blindly tap away at our keypads without regard to privacy concerns, so be it.

The fact that technology can produce such prodigious amounts of personal data and allow us to blithely carry it around with us, does not make it any less worthy of safeguards to our privacy. Personally, I feel that some things which many people are afraid of, such as a Stalin-like crackdown on personal liberties by Trump, are overstated and that, if we remain vigilant, the vast benefits of technological innovation will outweigh the negative consequences. We can only hope.

Again… Happy New Year!

Editor’s note: This article should be viewed purely as an opinion piece. The opinions expressed in it should not be regarded as representative of those held by other members of the team.

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