The Irony of Data Privacy

Marcus Alexander Ong

Thursday, October 1st, 2015

image by Sean MacEntee

image by Sean MacEntee

Since Edward Snowdan released classified documents on government surveillance programs, there has been a great deal of debate over the rights of individual privacy. The apparent lack of supervision and oversight of the security agencies raises genuine concerns over civil liberties. However, herein lies a great irony. Whilst we are rightly concerned how our governments use our personal data we are more than happy to give it away for special discounts or free email, maps or internet searches.

In the era of ‘Big Data’ corporations have amassed a vast amount of data about their customers. This data allows them to make highly sophisticated levels of inference which can be used to tailor our online experiences, improve the quality of products and allow for targeted marketing. A company like Google can monitor our interests through internet searches, Chromecast and YouTube, our professional and personal relationships through Gmail and Google+, and our location and habits through Google maps. They have also been prosecuted for illegally accessing private data on unsecured wireless devices via their StreetView cars. Supermarkets, have also collected a wealth of data on our shopping habits from their loyalty schemes. By studying customers with similar shopping habits they can infer the type of person you are and changes in your living state such as co-habitation status, children, wealth and health. Similar inferences are possible for other retailers and social media companies. With the growth of the Internet of Things, digital assistants and self-driving cars the amount of information about us is only going to increase over coming years.

So why should we be concerned about giving away our data to corporations? For the same reason that we are concerned about giving it to our governments. Without sufficient oversight we are left open to more sinister machinations. For example, online search companies could tailor results to influence certain segments of society and potentially control elections. Google is already under investigation by European authorities for anti-trust violations where they have been accused of favouring their own products over rivals in search results. Meanwhile Facebook has admitted conducting experiments on 700,000 users without their knowledge. In a study with Cornell University and the University of California at San Francisco, they manipulated the news feeds of users to control the emotional expressions to which they were exposed. The aim was to examine if the “exposure to emotions led people to change their own posting behaviours”. Since the experiment was without the users’ consent it was highly ethically dubious; I do not believe this would have passed the ethics review at most universities. Other possibilities include companies controlling the flow of information – or creating false information – to influence financial markets or protests. Recent high profile cyber attacks such as those on Sony and Ashley Maddision (an infidelity site) also highlight the risk of hackers accessing personal data. Stolen data could be used by criminals or foreign governments to commit fraud or extortion.

It seems clear to me that corporate data governance needs far greater oversight and control. This could be driven by governments but unfortunately many tech companies have become far too close to politicians. In a recent NY Times interview, veteran anti-trust lawyer Gary Reback said “There isn’t anybody in Silicon Valley who thinks that this [Obama] administration is ever going to do anything that really hurts Google”. This may well be extending to Brussels with an FT article citing that Microsoft spend 4.5m EUR annually on lobbying whilst Google spends 3.5m EUR; this is the same as energy companies such as Shell and ExxonMobil. Whilst there is no indication of wrongdoing it certainly raises concerns over conflict of interest.

Improvements in data governance could also be driven by the industry and the companies themselves. Whilst more cynical readers may be incredulous at this idea, Apple CEO Tim Cook seems to be making moves in this direction. In a speech in June (and quoted by TechCrunch) he criticised some of his competitors for having “built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency about their personal information”. He went on to say “They’re gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetise it. We think that’s wrong and it’s not the kind of company that Apple wants to be”. He has backed these statements up by modifying Apple’s Privacy Policy to re-iterate that they will not profile their customers using Maps, iMessage or iCloud; details can be found here.

The ‘Big Data’ era heralds many exciting opportunities and should improve the day-to-day lives of everyone in society. However, its vital that we have personal control of our data, understand how the data is being used, by whom and what are their motivations/intentions. We cannot simply share our data blindly and trust these large corporations. In the developed world large corporations may pose a far more significant risk than our governments.


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