from the money-matters dept
Another day, another privacy scandal that likely ends with nothing changing.
Crisis Text Line, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit support options for the suicidal, is in some hot water. A Politico report last week highlighted how the company has been caught collecting and monetizing the data of callers… to create and market customer service software. More specifically, Crisis Text Line says it “anonymizes” some user and interaction data (ranging from the frequency certain words are used, to the type of distress users are experiencing) and sells it to a for-profit partner named Loris.ai. Crisis Text Line has a minority stake in Loris.ai, and gets a cut of their revenues in exchange.
As we’ve seen in countless privacy scandals before this one, the idea that this data is “anonymized” is once again held up as some kind of get out of jail free card:
“Crisis Text Line says any data it shares with that company, Loris.ai, has been wholly ?anonymized,? stripped of any details that could be used to identify people who contacted the helpline in distress. Both entities say their goal is to improve the world ? in Loris? case, by making ?customer support more human, empathetic, and scalable.”
But as we’ve noted more times than I can count, “anonymized” is effectively a meaningless term in the privacy realm. Study after study after study has shown that it’s relatively trivial to identify a user’s “anonymized” footprint when that data is combined with a variety of other datasets. For a long time the press couldn’t be bothered to point this out, something that’s thankfully starting to change.
Also, just like most privacy scandals, the organization caught selling access to this data goes out of its way to portray it as something much different than it actually is. In this case, they’re acting as if they’re just being super altruistic:
“We view the relationship with Loris.ai as a valuable way to put more empathy into the world, while rigorously upholding our commitment to protecting the safety and anonymity of our texters,? Rodriguez wrote. He added that “sensitive data from conversations is not commercialized, full stop.”
Obviously there are layers of dysfunction that have helped normalize this kind of stupidity. One, it’s 2021 and we still don’t have even a basic privacy law for the internet era that sets out clear guidelines and imposes stiff penalties on negligent companies, nonprofits, and executives. And we don’t have a basic law because it’s hard (though writing any decent law certainly isn’t easy), but because a parade of large corporations, lobbyists, and revolving door regulators don’t want the data monetization party to suffer even a modest drop in revenues from the introduction of modest accountability, transparency, and empowered end users. It’s just boring old greed. There’s a lot of tap dancing that goes on to pretend that’s not the reason, but it doesn’t make it any less true.
We also don’t adequately fund mental health care in the states, forcing desperate people to reach out to startups that clearly don’t fully understand the scope of their responsibility. We also don’t adequately fund and resource our privacy regulators at agencies like the FTC. And even when the FTC does act (which it often can’t in terms of nonprofits), the penalties and fines are often pathetic in scale of the money being made.
Even before these problems are considered, you have to factor that the entire adtech space reaches across industries from big tech to telecom, and is designed specifically to be a convoluted nightmare making oversight as difficult as possible. The end result of this is just about what you’d expect. A steady parade of scandals (like the other big scandal last week in which gay/bi dating and Muslim prayer apps were caught selling user location data) that briefly generate a few headlines and furrowed eyebrows without any meaningful change.