The Future of Privacy
Will Privacy Exist in a Zero-Waste World?
Earth is dying one credit card transaction at a time. We’ve all read the articles, watched the documentaries — we know our consumption habits are killing dear Mother.
For decades, we’ve band-aided our planet’s wounds with recycling programs and slightly greener technologies. We need a better strategy like shifting to sustainable economy.
But will we have to sacrifice our privacy to save the planet?
Experts advocate for a circular economy
Our current economy is (mostly) linear. We take goods from the earth to make products. We use the products for a while before disposing of them, creating pollution throughout the product lifecycle. Our reactive approach to resource, waste, and pollution management prioritizes short-term consumption over our environment.
A circular economy is restorative and regenerative by design. Products are intentionally designed without waste and pollution. Each product and the byproducts created to produce it are reused or repurposed. Shifting to a circular economy will help end our finite resources’ over-exploitation and damage to our environment and climate.
Nations, communities, companies, and individuals alike are adopting circular economic principles. The European Union, for example, has issued a Circular Economic Action Plan, and ninety-seven cities have joined the C40, committing to the Paris Agreement at the local level. Major companies like Apple and Amazon have made Net Zero Carbon pledges.
And we can’t forget the thousands of people committed to a zero-waste lifestyle. Their commitment to living plastic-free and only filling one mason jar with trash per year is inspirational.
Striving towards a zero-waste world gives us hope for a long future, a future we want to leave our children and the next generations. As we progress towards our goal, we must consider the impact a circular economy may have on our other values like privacy.
How a circular economy impacts our privacy
A circular economy has a direct impact on privacy because it requires companies to increase data collection.
Data drives a circular economy. Each product and its components become data points fed into advanced technologies. We need data to recover products for reuse, repurposing, and recycling. Companies will collect data from the products you own to ensure proper maintenance, understand resource availability, and pull products out of production to be reused or recycled.
Let’s consider how a circular economy would change your vacuum, for an example. Manufacturers install tiny sensors to monitor the vacuum. The sensors will collect and send data about the vacuum’s use metrics, maintenance, and even location through GPS tracking.
At all times, the manufacturer or service provider(s) will monitor your vacuum and possibly communicate with you about what they learn. You’ll benefit from services like receiving a new belt when it wears out with a return label to return the old one. But you’ll also give up your privacy because the company may know how often you vacuum, the size of your house and objects in it, and how dirty your home is.
In a circular economy, every product you own may collect data about you. The data collected about your vacuum seems relatively benign when compared to more intimate items people own. What if I replaced the vacuum in this example with your toilet, your underwear, or an object sexual in nature?
The data collected places us at significant risk in a circular economy. It’s a gold mine for advertising, allowing for advancements in personalized ads and manipulative techniques to change your behavior and buying habits. If the data is exposed, you may experience physical, financial, and emotional harm like embarrassment and loss of dignity.
And what happens if you don’t adhere to the sustainability requirements of each product? What happens if you throw away a product if you’re required to recycle it when that action is now traceable? Are you fined? Imprisoned?
Our privacy is a key consideration when designing a sustainable economy.
Privacy can exist in a circular economy
Privacy is a complex concept with various definitions. In a circular economy, we must preserve people’s ability to be apart from company or observation and give them some control over how their data is collected and used. Failure to maintain these main privacy concepts will erode and eventually kill privacy.
We need to consider privacy now to embed privacy by design into the advanced technology and business models we’re building for the circular economy. Privacy must be considered when determining how the product will be tracked, monitored, and returned into the circular model designed for each product. Someone needs to be at the table, asking the Privacy by Design questions.
How will we encrypt that data? How will we limit the use of that data to what’s necessary? How will we obtain consent to send marketing communications based on the data collected? How will we offer an alternative product monitoring solution, like transferring accountability for a maintenance check to the consumer?
We also must consider how companies may mistreat or misuse data collected and place enforceable laws to protect us. For example, we should limit the ways companies may use the data collected for sustainability to only those purposes, meaning they can’t use it for practices like for marketing.
Preserving privacy in a circular economy is possible, but it’s a complex task requiring global collaboration between companies, governments, and privacy experts.
Healing our planet and creating a safe environment for future generations is of paramount importance for most of us. A time will soon come when we are asked to give up our privacy in the name of sustainability. We must ask why we can’t have both.