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Demystifying Online Privacy, Through the Story of the Man Who Took On Silicon Valley

August 20, 2018

By Nicholas Confessore
Aug. 18, 2018

Times Insider delivers behind-the-scenes insights into how news, features and opinion come together at The New York Times.

I usually think of myself as a politics reporter, the job I’ve had, on and off, for most of my career. But in the last year or so, I’ve had to add another title, one I never thought I’d have: tech reporter.

In the Trump era, those two topics are increasingly hard to separate. In the last year, I’ve written about the booming business of “bots” and fake accounts on Twitter and how Russian agents used fake Facebook pages to sow division and shape the 2016 presidential election. I also worked on a Times investigation, in partnership with The Guardian and The Observer of London, into Cambridge Analytica, the British-American political data firm that improperly exploited the personal Facebook data of tens of millions of American voters. To study political power today, you have to understand technology.

That’s what drew me to the story of Alastair Mactaggart, the central character in this Sunday’s magazine cover story about the war over privacy. In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, it has become clear that tech companies like Google and Facebook not only collect extraordinary amounts of information about everyone, but sometimes deceive or mislead their own users about what information is being collected and how it is used.
My colleagues and I have reported extensively over the last year on the enormous power wielded by tech companies over politics and commerce and on the ways in which that power can be abused. Our reporting has shed light on how poorly tech companies protect the integrity of their platforms and of the data you hand them for free, with profound consequences.

Yet both Facebook and Google, and the broader tech industry of which they are a part, have escaped any major regulation or seriously punitive government action in the United States. (In Europe, Google was recently hit with a $5 billion fine for antitrust violations.) Even after a cascade of scandals, Washington had done almost nothing. Why?

Mr. Mactaggart, who last year began organizing to pass a California ballot initiative restricting the abuse of personal data, turned out to be an ideal way to answer the question. For one thing, his campaign was happening in real time, and as a political neophyte, he was encountering Silicon Valley’s political machine for the first time, much as most readers would be. Mr. Mactaggart was not an expert on privacy when he started; he was a wealthy real estate developer from Oakland, whose main interaction with people in the tech world was at Bay Area birthday parties and his neighborhood dog run. He more or less fell into a rabbit hole and became a little obsessed. That journey allowed me to turn an arcane and often boring subject into a compelling yarn; his education — as a political campaigner and as a consumer — becomes the reader’s.

That was important for me, too, as a reporter. I often write about complex policy issues, and questions surrounding data collection, advertising and privacy can be challenging to unspool in a compelling, accessible way.

I used to write about campaign finance; that’s a complicated topic, too, and it was easy to lose readers’ attention. But writing about data and privacy is harder. Presidential campaigns lend a certain innate drama to stories about donors and fund-raising. Tech and social media, while in one sense nearer to people’s daily lives, can seem distant and abstract. For those who have no background in programming or data science, the industry they animate can seem impenetrable.
This is no accident. One reason Big Tech faces so little resistance from policymakers is that Silicon Valley’s business seems so daunting. I find that Big Tech’s lobbyists and “thought leaders” — and some journalists — implicitly and sometimes explicitly promote the idea that policymakers are too dumb, slow or unsophisticated to understand how it all works, let alone regulate something like data collection practices. This notion also helps insulate the industry from accountability.

The story of how Mr. Mactaggart forced California lawmakers to pass a landmark consumer privacy law is, in part, a story of the power of this idea — and also of its flimsiness. The law he helped pass is not a panacea, and won’t solve every problem raised by the encroaching powers of Big Tech. Some critics believe the law doesn’t go far enough. (And many in the industry believe it goes way too far.) But the fact of it — the political proof of concept — has already stirred intense debate and pressure to produce even more protections for consumers, not only in other states but in Washington.

That matters not only for consumers, but also for readers. Mr. Mactaggart is a smart guy, and he had time and resources most people don’t. But he’s not an expert on politics or technology. If he can figure it out, so can you.

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