Young People Know Online Privacy Is Hopeless. Let’s Fix That.

By Leif-Nissen Lundbæk, co-founder and CEO of Xayn

Young people are anything but stupid when it comes to online privacy.

In fact, they’re getting smarter about it every year. Millennials and Gen Z – the two digital native generations – have long had a keen sense of the extent of how their online movements are being tracked and how their data is being sold. This is a relatively new development. A 2013 survey from the University of Southern California’s Center for the Digital Future found that while 70% of millennials agreed with the statement that “no one should ever be allowed to have access to my personal data or web behavior,” more than half of those same millennials surveyed said they would share information, such as location, with a company if they got something in return.

By 2016, a Pew Research study had found that “young adults generally are more focused than their elders when it comes to online privacy,” with over 70% of 18-24 year olds saying they regularly cleared cookies and browser histories, and nearly half configured their browsers to reject cookies. Young adults, it discovered, were the most likely of any demographic “to use most strategies to be less visible online.”

This trend was heading in a positive direction. Young adults online in the post-Snowden world seemed to understand and act on the knowledge of online tracking. But this has been entirely derailed in recent years. Teenagers and young adults are the biggest demographics on a number of incredibly popular and incredibly invasive apps, namely TikTok and Instagram. The efficacy of whatever measures young people are taking to prevent tracking are drastically reduced the moment they sign up for TikTok. TikTok’s tracking and data collection borders on the extreme: precise GPS location, your search history and IP address, what you’re viewing on the app and for how long, and the content of messages sent and received. Instagram’s invasive tactics are well-documented elsewhere, and similarly extreme.

The memeification of privacy 

The question of whether or not young people better understand and care more about online privacy than their parents and grandparents misses the point. Even if they’re being more careful on their browser – using a VPN, perhaps – their efforts pale in comparison to the non-adjustable tracking capabilities of the apps they’re most likely using (and that their parents and grandparents likely aren’t).

The dilemma and mindset this creates is troubling. It’s a fool’s errand to try and convince Gen Z to just get off TikTok en masse. That’s where their online social lives and entertainment happens. Gen Z genuinely enjoys TikTok – why would they leave? Hand-wringing about privacy isn’t a compelling enough argument to them. On the other hand, there’s a sordid sense of glum acceptance about online tracking and privacy invasion. There are countless tweets and memes joking about the imagined reaction of “my NSA agent” or “my government agent” to online behavior. In many ways, it’s treated as a fact of life.

The memes are admittedly funny. But that Millennials and Gen Z are reacting to digital privacy incursions for surveillance and for profit with a mix of humor and hopelessness demonstrates a fundamental failure in how we’ve educated and empowered younger generations to stand up for their right to privacy. The key to fixing this isn’t a Nancy Reagan “Just Say No” campaign.

Say no to ‘just say no’ 

It’s important to remember that these generations already believe that they have a right to digital privacy, and they’re the demographics most likely to take measures to prevent tracking. But young people didn’t abandon Facebook over its privacy violations. They abandoned it because they found it “boring, misleading, and negative,” according to Facebook CPO Chris Cox. The inverse logic is at play here: TikTok’s tracking is perceived as a necessary evil because the app is enjoyable to use and the content is engaging and relevant. 

In order to get younger generations to care about privacy, a combination of things need to happen. We need more and stricter GDPR-style legislation across the globe to crack down on tracking and protect users’ privacy. Awareness remains key. Young people may be aware that they’re being tracked, but understanding exactly what and how much data is being tracked, stored, and sold is crucial to upping young people’s investment in not being tracked. Realistically, this is more likely to come from private organizations like Electronic Frontier Foundation than governments, but it’s necessary all the same.

But the responsibility also falls on tech itself. We need to prioritize privacy when building new apps, software, and programs. Selling collected data as a means of monetization is almost cartoonishly evil at this point, and it’s far from the only way apps can make money. Doing so needs to become taboo in Silicon Valley and elsewhere. As an industry, tech is consistently failing every moral test thrown at us. Breaking the cycle is a top-down effort in more ways than one. We’ve built young people apps they love. Let’s keep doing that, only without the exploitation part. 

About the author:

Leif-Nissen Lundbæk (Ph.D.) is Co-Founder and CEO of Xayn. His work focuses mainly on algorithms and applications for privacy-preserving artificial intelligence. In 2017, he founded the privacy tech company together with Professor Michael Huth and Felix Hahmann. Xayn offers a privacy-protecting search engine that enables users to gain back control over the algorithms and provides them with a smooth user-experience. Winner of the first Porsche Innovation Contest, the Berlin-based AI company has already worked successfully with Porsche, Daimler, Deutsche Bahn, and Siemens. 

Before founding Xayn, Leif-Nissen Lundbæk worked with Daimler AG and IBM. He studied Economics at the Humboldt University in Berlin, received his M.Sc in Mathematics at Heidelberg University, an M.Sc. with distinction in Software Engineering at The University of Oxford and obtained his Ph.D. in Computing at the Imperial College London.

The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.