Let’s talk about data privacy. Before you turn the page or click on a different story, let us tell you why two pastors would take the time to write about a topic that, on its surface, might seem unrelated to ministry. This Thursday, January 28, is Data Privacy Day. While it’s probably not marked on your calendars, we’ve been paying attention to data privacy issues for some time now, so this event presents a perfect occasion to highlight the importance of protecting your personal information and how it relates to our work in the community.
Data plays a significant role in our daily lives. Information that was once stored in desk drawers now lives on servers, from bank statements and medical records to family photos and more. This change in how we store precious personal items has made life easier, but it’s also created a number of emerging threats to civil liberties. As faith leaders, we feel a tremendous obligation to protect our communities by raising awareness of the risks this technological evolution has created. It’s closely interwoven with our work to uplift our brothers and sisters, seek justice and promote equity.
At this particular moment, our focus is on the increasingly blurred lines between safe data collection practices and intrusive government programs that collect our private data without consent. The past year was filled with disturbing reports of abuse. Authorities used internet trails to arrest undocumented immigrants. Police surveilled protestors marching for racial justice. Even the U.S. military was caught purchasing private location data from a Muslim prayer app. Stories like these compel us to act in defense of the most vulnerable among us. It’s what convicts our hearts to educate our communities on how data is collected, where it can be misused, and what actions we can take to ensure oversight and accountability.
Unfortunately, there is a groundswell of intrusive surveillance practices occurring in city governments across the country, including some right under our noses. The Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) is spearheading a program called Mobility Data Specification (MDS), which tracks the locations of individual vehicles in real-time. MDS makes it possible to identify riders based on where they’ve been – their homes, businesses, churches, you name it. This capability creates a laundry list of privacy and safety risks, particularly for minority and low-income communities, which I wrote about last summer in these very pages. City officials will tell you it’s not surveillance, but the tech speaks for itself.
Alarmingly, MDS isn’t the only threat to data privacy in Los Angeles. The City is keen on implementing other “smart city” technologies that are growing in popularity. You should be incredibly wary of these programs. Take for example the City’s deployment of “smart streetlights” that come equipped with cameras and sensors. It seems that our public officials haven’t been paying attention to our neighbor to the south. In San Diego, local police were found to have used streetlight cameras to surveil people with zero public oversight. Thanks to public outcry and tireless efforts by privacy and civil rights advocates, San Diego turned the streetlights off.
We could go on about the LAPD using a technology called Palantir to monitor our streets, a preferred surveillance tool of the CIA, or the City’s approval of controversial facial recognition technology, but we suspect you’ve already begun the grasp the gravity of this issue. These technologies could end up harming our communities in countless ways. Regulating our streets through impersonal and potentially discriminatory data collection doesn’t just threaten our privacy, it will make our communities less safe.
On this National Data Privacy Day, we urge you to consider the consequences of letting these harmful programs continue unencumbered. Your data is so much more than bytes of impersonal information. The sum of its parts creates a detailed image of who you are, what you’re doing, where you’re going, and how you get there. If we let city governments run roughshod over our right to keep this information private, then we will no longer be able to live our lives freely.
We ask that you think about how you can adapt your daily routines to safely secure your personal data. Beyond that, seek out opportunities to gather more information on the ways local governments are tracking and using your data. Then, speak up and speak out. Call your local officials, ask them what they are doing to protect Angelenos’ private data, demand public oversight and accountability that will ensure the blurred lines of data collection are made clear and unbending. It’s not an easy task, but it is vital to be proactive, as individuals and as a community, in securing data privacy for ourselves and for future generations.
Pastor Smart is President and CEO at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Southern California. Pastor Tullos is President of the Baptist Ministers Conference of Los Angeles and Southern California.