My son recently turned 16. Watching him grow up as a digital native has made me more aware of data privacy, both his and mine. Like any teenager, he spends a lot of time online.
Not too long ago, to “go online” meant opening a specific connection to Internet servers (remember that sound?), transmitting data back and forth, and then terminating that connection when you were done.
Today, most of us walk around with a device in our pocket that, unless it’s powered off, is usually connected. And most likely, generating data and transmitting it across that connection.
Think about the permissions that we grant those devices. Unless you have location services completely disabled on your device, I would bet you’ve got at least one app tracking your movements.
I don’t believe that Mark Zuckerberg is listening in to my conversations via Facebook Messenger, or that my laptop’s camera is broadcasting my life to some remote monitor. But a lot of apps request access to your device’s camera and microphone, or various degrees of access to our social media accounts. As users of those apps, we have a right and a responsibility to understand why.
Feeling inspired to more carefully read terms and conditions? Great idea, in principle; we should be informed as consumers. But software licences are long and complex, and getting more so all the time (since mobile software, particularly, generates so much user information). If you want to read the Apple iOS 12 terms and conditions, get comfy: it’s 451 pages long.
I’d like to think we’re at least growing more aware of the potential consequences of the data economy we’re all participating in. There’s been a lot of talk about the ways in which social media has influenced (or decided?) the outcomes of political events like the U.S. election in 2016 and the Brexit referendum.
Other unintended consequences have been perhaps less far-reaching, but still surprising and potentially dangerous. Strava is an app that tracks runners’ routes and shares them with their friends. It has a heat map feature, which allows users to see where other people run.
If you’re traveling in an unfamiliar city, for example, you can see where most local runners go. Great idea, right? Sure, until people noticed that these same heat maps did a great job of highlighting the undisclosed location of military bases in countries where the U.S. has armed forces stationed. Oops!
I’m not sure it’s possible to live off grid, at least as far as data is concerned. Almost everything we do generates data that is gathered in some form, aggregated, and in many cases sold. And this is at least supposed to be for our benefit.
The more that companies know about our preferences, the more often they can offer helpful information. Check out a product online and I guarantee that you’ll see advertising for that product and similar ones for weeks to come. Super helpful. If your device knows that you usually leave point A to arrive at point B at a certain time, it can warn you when you’re going to be late. Also helpful (if a bit creepy).
As with any transaction, there’s an exchange happening with our data. We’re giving something to get something. Being an informed party in this exchange means giving some thought to exactly what you’re trading off.
Bottom line: if you’re not paying for a product, it’s a good bet that you are the product. What are you selling?