NOTE: This post was originally published on October 25, 2019
We are excited to announce the winner of the ExpressVPN Future of Privacy Scholarship 2019: Seth Connell, a law student at Regent University, in Virginia, U.S. Congratulations!
This year, our essay prompt asked students to discuss whether we should rely on governments or the free market to ensure consumer privacy. We received over 1,000 entries tackling the topic, with plenty of strong arguments for and against government intervention in regulating the use of consumer information.
Based on argument strength and clarity, we chose to award the scholarship prize of $5,000 to Seth, who wrote that in the pursuit of optimal user privacy, government intervention should be minimized in favor of consumer choice. You can read his essay on our scholarship page.
There was stiff competition with so many applicants this year, but five runners-up also presented compelling viewpoints on what has become a growing topic of debate among countries and companies. The runners-up each won 12-month ExpressVPN subscriptions.
- Isabella Grundseth, Mountainside High School, Oregon, U.S.
- Calvin Kuo, University of Virginia, U.S.
- David Slottved, University of Oxford, UK
- Elijah Smith, University of Pittsburgh, U.S.
- Jared Stancombe, Indiana University, U.S.
We spoke to Seth about his winning essay, his own privacy measures, and how he plans to use his degree to help others.
Congratulations, Seth! To start off, what are some of the digital privacy issues you encounter in your daily life? Do you take steps to protect your digital privacy?
It seems at every turn in life there is some privacy concern. I frequently encounter apps and websites asking to track me, monitor my personal data, and send tailored advertisements. I try to minimize the risks by denying whatever permissions I do not need for the program’s proper functionality, or, if I can find another program or website to use that is not so invasive, I’ll opt for the alternative.
Another concern I have is the various data breaches happening to a swath of companies across the country and the world. It seems that no one’s data is safe these days and I strongly believe it is important to protect yourself with a solid identity-theft protection plan. It’s only a matter of time before our data is compromised, and having a reliable recovery service is key to prevent your life from being uprooted by a data breach. For the personal side of things, I also use a VPN to scramble my IP address, and only use trusted and secure Wi-Fi networks for tasks involving sensitive information.
Which of the biggest tech companies do you think is the most intrusive into people’s privacy?
In my assessment, the most intrusive tech companies are Google, Amazon, and Facebook. These companies provide solid products and solutions for consumers and businesses, and I’m certainly one of them. However, the permissions that these companies require to use their services are highly intrusive and take mountains of personal data that is later used for marketing purposes. Facebook has dealt with major public relations issues over its handling of users’ data. It’s understandable that these companies are using the data as they are; after all, the potential for profits from sales by using this data is sky-high, but the tradeoff is, unfortunately, our privacy.
As I mentioned in my essay, one journalist for the Washington Post concluded that the Google Chrome browser is effectively a data-mining tool masquerading as a browser. Similarly, the Google Home and Amazon Alexa devices seem always be recording their owners’ conversations, and the FBI has tacitly admitted to using these devices as a backdoor wiretap. The fact that these devices and companies overhear our conversations is bad enough, but adding in the threat of government force makes for quite a Brave New World.
In your essay you say we need more choice of tech products and services. With the industry dominated by several tech giants, how should new competitors and startups approach entering the market?
I would say it is important for entrepreneurs to keep innovating and promoting their ideas in the marketplace. The more they innovate, the better our lives will become over time. There is one particular area I’d suggest considering if a tech business wants to promote a more secure product or service. Right now, the dream for many tech startups is to be bought out by a company like Google. If a product is so good that Google wants it, there’s potentially a lot of money involved in selling the brand to a bigger company. The potential downside is that consumers won’t get the full potential benefit that this startup could have otherwise provided.
Let’s say a startup really wants to focus on user privacy. There is definitely a market for that, and that market will likely continue to grow. However, if this startup agrees to be bought by a larger firm that does not have that same emphasis, consumers can’t benefit from an alternative product that will offer the benefits without the risks to their privacy. So I would say that more entrepreneurs ought to consider resisting the temptation to sell out to a bigger company. Keep to your principles and make a great product that privacy-concerned people will buy. Who knows, if these startups grow enough, it will put pressure on the existing companies to respond and increase their privacy protections if they are going to keep up.
Finally, what are you currently studying and what do you hope to pursue in the future?
I am currently pursuing my law degree and will take the bar exam in 2022. I have two types of legal careers in mind.
First, I would love to be a constitutional lawyer who specializes in Fourth Amendment law [the prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures]. Millions of Americans have been subjected to unlawful surveillance for nearly two decades, and I believe it is important to uphold the wisdom of the Fourth Amendment and push back against the mass surveillance state.
Second, I am also interested in helping families with their finances and working with them to achieve a better financial future. I am currently a financial coach as well as a law student, and I would like to incorporate my financial coaching practice into the practice of law, should I have the opportunity.
Is privacy a topic that matters to you? Consider entering next year’s essay competition for the ExpressVPN Future of Privacy Scholarship! More details to come in early 2020.