It’s probably obvious to most people that some personal information needs to be tightly protected, especially bank details, medical records, and passwords. The motivation may be to protect ourselves from criminal activity, embarrassment, or simply because it is nobody else’s business. Users should care about data privacy, and the tech industry should protect your data.
It is essential to understand that ALL personal data is now the fuel of the digital economy.
And that means there is an entire industry worth billions of dollars devoted to finding out all about YOU. Your friends. Your buying habits. Where you live and who you live with. Everything is up for grabs and exploited for a simple reason. To make it easier for you to target yourself with ads tricking you into buying things that you might not otherwise buy.
Data Privacy – Why Users Should Care and How the Tech Industry Should Protect Data
We all know about advertisements that follow us around the internet (a process known as remarketing). A lot of people have stories of how a conversation with someone about buying something, or maybe seeing a movie, somehow led to an advertisement about it.
They are convinced that their phone listens to everything they say. And, your phone IS listening – but not for the reasons you think. In fact, it’s thanks to the incredible power of today’s predictive algorithms. They probably know more about what you want to do or buy next than you do. Based on billions upon billions of observed interactions with other people like you.
A little bit of high life and tech industry questions
The big question is, if you know your “important” information is protected, is tracking important? Should you be concerned about whether your other data is being used to track you? Especially if it translates to free or cheap apps that make your life easier or more enjoyable. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Gmail or Uber.
The first problem is quite simply very human. “I’m just not sure I’m comfortable with someone having access to everything I’m doing.” Nobody reads 1984 and think it sounds like a wonderful way to live. This is just wrong.
There are real and practical data issues that need to be addressed.
There’s a lot more to it than just selling a new device. We now know that democracy itself can be manipulated by the very technology that also sells us laundry.
1960s simulation company
The idea is not new. It actually dates back to the early 1960s and the rise of the Simulamatics Corporation. He came up with the idea of identifying groups of people and computerizing them so that their behavior could be predicted.
Computing power and data availability were only a fraction of what is available today. But the idea was there. And if you believe the Simulmatics Corporation, their data and predictions were enough to predict and tip the election. (For more information on the dawn of this type of data science, read the fascinating If so by Jill Lepore.)
Fast forward to the present day, and we are still feeling the effects of Cambridge Analytica scandal. Where the process of extracting publicly available data has helped push a country to break with its largest trading partner. And another to elect the worst or the best president he has ever had.
An ironically funny story of the Brexit campaign is that contrary to popular belief, Cambridge Analytica did not participate in the campaign at all, according to a three-year investigation by the Information Commissioner.
However, they found that “there are systemic vulnerabilities in our democratic systems” caused by the availability of personal data. That alone should be enough to make us demand that our data be better protected and regulated.
Things change. Slowly. And not always in a way where the patterns are fully transparent.
Convenience – not always benevolent
Take two recent examples: Apple vs. Facebook and Google vs. Everyone.
Apple vs. Facebook
In his latest update of his mobile operating system, iOS 14, Apple released a new security feature focused on IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers – Look for it – Too Good to Miss).
Oh joy !! It’s a unique identify for each iPhone and iPad, allowing advertisers to track the effectiveness of their advertising. Apple has decided to make this a registration feature for users. It provides a single pop-up window that asks users whether or not they want to be followed by Facebook. Verizon did this on their phone system – you can opt out.
At first glance it seems obvious, why wouldn’t you want to be followed?
Mark Zuckerberg, not maybe someone you would normally sympathize with, says this change “threatens the personalized ads that millions of small businesses rely on to find and reach customers.”
The reality is that Facebook also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, and Apple owns iMessage.
Facebook sees the changes not as a way to protect consumers, but to cripple Facebook. “Apple has every interest in using its dominant position on the platform to interfere with the operation of our apps and other apps, which they regularly do to prefer theirs.”
Google against everyone
Google controls the world’s most popular browser, Chrome, and has announced it is implementing sweeping changes to “third-party cookies”.
The bad guys are stalking you on the internet. When your browser knows that you were recently on Site A, looking at a particular product, it may push you an advertisement to entice you to buy the same thing.
The proposal is that these cookies will be replaced by some type of group identifier. This identifies you as part of a particular “tribe” of people who Google says have similar interests. Google will supposedly stop third-party cookies – OVER THE NEXT YEAR – 2022. They’ll already have everything they need in their data storage by then.
It only remains to wait a year for the implementation by Google
It sounds fantastic, as third-party tracking is considered to be one of the most intrusive aspects of browsing the web. Why? Because it pulverizes your data across the internet in an unregulated way, leaking privacy with every new site you visit.
So, after another year, the change will severely limit the ability of almost any business on the Internet to target specific advertisements to you. Because they will no longer be able to rely on the collection of second-hand data via third-party cookies.
Ideal for Google
Except for Google. Who is one of the biggest * first party * data collectors on the internet? Google collects data from your searches through Gmail and Google Maps. If the company’s ability to target you is better and everyone’s is worse, does that surely mean more money is being spent on Google ads at the expense of other advertisers?
What both cases show is that the big tech companies are unlikely to act in your best interests when it comes to managing personal data.
Especially if that personal data is what drives their bottom line. Is some degree of regulation and perhaps a technological overhaul needed?
Europe has shown the way to protect private data – GDPR
Europe has led the way in private data regulation and general data protection Regulation (GDPR) is possibly the most comprehensive data protection law ever enacted.
But does the GDPR have real teeth?
It is estimated that $ 9 billion has been spent on GDPR readiness. For the last calendar year, DLA Piper estimates fines across Europe to be around 114 million euros.
With the huge focus on data privacy – that fines can account for up to 4% of global revenue, it doesn’t look like GDPR has yet to hit its stride.
Data Privacy – Consumer – why you should care. in the
The future of data privacy is likely in the hands of the consumer. And the willingness of each of us to pay for the services that are subsidized by the money drawn from our data.
Tim Berners-Lee, famous inventor of the World Wide Web, possesses gone on a mission to retrieve personal data with the idea of data “Pods”. These pods put personal data in the hands of the individual and are only distributed very selectively. For this to work, we need to reorganize the internet. And consider how convenience trumps privacy.
Think of something as simple as an email. Who doesn’t love being able to access Gmail and search for emails? Or start a new email and ask Google to suggest whole sentences?
This whole connection relies (today) on Google’s full access to your data.
What about Alexa? What a pleasure to walk into the kitchen and turn on the radio. But over 20 times a day, that same Alexa device activates and accidentally sends data to Amazon: And somewhere in an office building in Romania, someone is listening.
To secure our data, we need to start thinking more about local data processing. Including searchable encryption and homomorphic data processing. All the means to minimize data leaks. Anything can be done. And there is a lot we can do now.
But someone has to pay. Despite all of our discussions about how we want our data to stay “ours”, it’s our data that is taking the note right now.
Image Credit: andres ayrton; pexels; Thank you!