Who is using who? Data privacy concerns and the data industrial complex

Giving a keynote at a conference in London this week, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella added his voice to the discourse about data privacy, advocating for its recognition as a human right. He was speaking in support of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). Nadella is not the only tech titan supporting stringent data privacy. Apple’s CEO, Tim Cook, recently pushed for the same. These voices, spurred by various issues in recent years, have brought issues of data privacy and protection of personal information to the fore. This triggers thought-provoking questions such as, should data privacy be a human right?

This got me thinking about two services that I use, Google and Facebook, which track me. I kicked into self-reflection mode, asking myself the following questions :

• Why would they need my data?
• What happens when they collect my data?
• How much power do the service providers amass by collecting my data and aggregating it with other data?
• Why have I been alright with this scenario?
• What should I do about it?

What is data Privacy?
Data privacy has become topical in recent times. It is about the ability of individuals or entities determining what sensitive information or personally identifiable information1 (PII) in a computer system can be shared with third parties. Due to increasing debate around these issues, the standards and expectations have evolved. On the other hand, it seems regulations in different jurisdictions have gradually changed, and Europe’s GDPR has set the regulation standards very high, which is why leaders in the tech industry have come out to praise such regulations.

Why is data privacy important?
A broad number of dynamics have brought this issue to the forefront of technology debates. Issues such as the recent class action lawsuit against Google and Facebook2 for deceptively and secretly tracking users’ locations and collecting their data, even when users were led to believe that they had switched off such tracking, as well as the recent Cambridge Analytica scandal that affected the US 2016 elections have increased the temperatures. Key questions over data privacy include collecting and sharing personal data with third parties without consent as well as whether third parties can track websites visited by a user.

While services such as Google and Facebook generally encrypt user information, the greatest concern is not whether PII is un-encrypted and therefore vulnerable, its what these platforms with unlimited amounts of personal data, with or without the user knowing, do with the data they collect. At a conference in Brussels last month, Cook took a indirect dig at the two companies, referring to them as the data-industrial complex that takes user data information and getting it “weaponized against us with military efficiency”. He further warned against the sugarcoating of the consequences, adding that such surveillance “and these stockpiles of personal data serve only to enrich the companies that collect them. This should make us very uncomfortable. It should unsettle us.” Cook’s words, albeit strong, warn us of an unsettling development of mass surveillance (tracking), stockpiling (storage and manipulation), and weaponization (abuse and manipulation) of PII, very key issues underpinning the debate on data privacy. But the issue goes beyond these three issues, it speaks to how these companies deemed part of the data industrial complex can become extremely powerful, without being answerable to anyone, giving rise to calls for regulation.

What happens to our data?
As I use Facebook and Google services, the firms collect my data. The question is, what data do they collect and what do they do with it? Among other personal information, Google collects the following data on me:

• It tracks where I have been. It stores details about my  location as long as I have my phone running, if I inadvertently turn location tracking. (Its possible to see a whole timeline of where I have been from the point I started using Google on my device. This information can be found here.
• It keeps a advertisement profile on me. This profile is created using my information like possible income, weight, gender, age, relationship status and other personal details to create a customized advertisement profile based on my data. You can find your information here.
• It keeps a record of everything I have ever searched, including what I deleted. This search history is kept across all my devices, meaning that even if I deleted my search history on one device, it still remains accessible on other devices. You can find your information here.
• It keeps all video viewing history on YouTube. From this, it can figure out my political earnings, my religion, my mood among other issues.

On the other hand, Facebook stores among other details, the following information:

• All data on things that I like and find interesting. This is based on my “like” clicks on its website, as well as what my friends like about me.
• All my geographical locations based on my log-in positions, the times I logged in and the device I used.
• All applications that have been connected to my Facebook account. This enables them to estimate and profile my preferences and interests.

Both Google and Facebook store massive amounts of my data extracted and archived by their algorithms. For example, Facebook keeps data enough to fill up hundreds of thousands word documents, including all of my activity on its website. This information can be found here. On the other hand, Google stores data large enough to fill hundreds of thousands of Word documents if printed. This information can be downloaded here.
This means that gaining access to anyone’s account gives access to all information on anything and everything there is to know about the user, including calendar data diarizing every aspect of the user’s life.

Googles says it collects all information on me to better deliver better services, including providing me more tailored advertisements, never mind that I don’t really need the advertisements. Yet questions arise from how it uses this information it collects. Most likely, it could use it for services that border on manipulation, that if packaged with advanced artificial intelligence systems and machine learning will deliver highly personalized services in the form of digital agents such as an advanced Google Assistant service. On the other hand, Facebook doesn’t directly sell my data, it sells access to me as all my data is used to create targeted advertising. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, however, exposed the unapproved mining of customer data for political manipulation purposes. Whichever way these companies use our data, nefarious or otherwise, what should be of greater concern is that we all are vulnerable to exploitation in unlimited ways that can benefit governments, companies and other entities that have the money to buy access to us.

Is what they disclose as collecting the same as what they actually disclose?

Prior to the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Facebook enunciated a policy which did not bother many users. But when the Cambridge Analytica issues came to light, it raised the specter of far more use of data than was previously disclosed to users. It is therefore reasonable to ask if Google also actually collects far more data than its disclosure policy lets on. Whatever the case, its important to keep guard of what information we let the companies collect. The best way to do that is to limit the amount of tracking and access requested by the services via the devices we use. In general, it is much easier to let go of Facebook’s services than it is to not use a variety of Google’s applications. That said, it is more regulation designed to diminish the significant power the data industrial complex has acquired that will protect users and keep their power in check. If necessary, the application of anti-trust laws to break up the tech giants may become an option on the table, and an exploration by Lina Khan of how to break up the monopoly of Amazon provides interesting direction.3

References
1.  Martin, K. E (2015). Ethical Issues in the Big Data Industry. MIS Quarterly Executive, June 2015 (14:2)

2. https://nakedsecurity.sophos.com/2018/10/25/google-and-facebook-accused-of-secretly-tracking-users-locations/ 

3. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/07/lina-khan-antitrust/561743/ 

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