tech should protect data

It is probably obvious to most people that certain personal information should be tightly protected — especially bank details, health records, and passwords. The motivation might be to protect us from criminal activity, embarrassment, or just because it is not anyone else’s business. Users should care about data privacy — and the tech industry should safeguard your data.

It’s essential to understand that ALL personal data is now the fuel of the digital economy.

And that means that there is an entire industry worth billions of dollars devoted to finding everything out about YOU. Your friends. Your shopping habits. Where you live and who you live with. Everything is up for grabs and harnessed for one simple reason.  To make it easier to target you with adverts persuading you to buy things you might not purchase otherwise. 

Data Privacy – Why Users Should Care and How the Tech Industry Should Safeguard Data 

We all know about adverts that follow us around the Internet (a process known as remarketing). Many people have stories about how a conversation with someone about buying something or maybe seeing a movie, somehow led to an advert about it.

They are convinced that their phone is listening to everything they are saying. And, your phone IS listening – but not for the reasons you think. Actually, it’s down to the incredible power of today’s predictive algorithms. They probably know more about what you will want to do or buy next than you do. Based on billions and billions of interactions observed from other people just like you.

Some big life and tech industry questions

The big question is: if you know that your “important” information is protected, does tracking matter? Should you care if your other data is being used to track you? Especially if it results in free or low-priced apps that make your life easier or more pleasurable. Be it Facebook, Instagram, Gmail or Uber.

The first issue is simply a very human one. “I’m just not sure that I’m that comfortable with someone having access to everything that I’m doing.” No one reads 1984 and thinks that seems like a wonderful way to live. It just feels wrong.

There are real and practical data issues that need to be addressed.

There is a lot more at play than simply being sold a new appliance. We now know that democracy itself can be manipulated by the very technology that also sells us washing powder.

1960’s Simulamatics Corporation

The idea is not new. It actually goes back to the early 60s and the rise of the Simulamatics Corporation. It came up with the idea of identifying groups of people and computerizing them so that their behavior could be predicted.

The computer power and availability of data was a fraction of that available today. But the idea was there. And if you believe the Simulmatics Corporation, their data and predictions were enough to forecast and swing elections. (For more information on the dawn of this type of data science, read the fascinating If Then by Jill Lepore.)

Cambridge Analytica

Fast forward to the present day, and we are still feeling the effects of the Cambridge Analytica scandal. Where the process of mining publicly available data, made it possible to push one country to break with its largest trading partner. And another to elect the worst or best President it has ever had.   

One wryly amusing side story from the Brexit campaign is that contrary to popular belief, Cambridge Analytica had no involvement in that campaign at all, according to a three-year probe by the Information Commissioner.

However, they did find 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 is better protected and regulated.

Things are changing. Slowly. And not always in ways where the motives are entirely transparent.

Convenience – not always benevolent

Take two recent examples – Apple vs. Facebook and Google against everyone else.

Apple vs. Facebook 

In its latest update to its mobile operating system, iOS 14, Apple has released a new security feature that centers around the IDFA (Identifier for Advertisers — Look it up — too good to miss).

Oh, Joy!! This is a unique identifier for every iPhone and iPad, which allows advertisers to track the effectiveness of their advertising. Apple has decided to make this an opt-in feature for users. It supplies a one-time pop-up box that asks users whether they want to be tracked by Facebook or not. Verizon has made it so on their phone system — you can opt-out.

On the face of it, it seems obvious, why would you wouldn’t want to be tracked?

Mark Zuckerberg, not perhaps someone you would normally feel sympathy 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 incentive to use their dominant platform position to interfere with how our apps and other apps work, which they regularly do to preference their own.” 

Google vs. Everyone Else

Google controls the world’s most popular browser, Chrome, and has announced that it is implanting sweeping changes to “third-party cookies.”

These are the nasties that track you across the internet. When your browser knows that you were recently on Site A, looking at a particular product, it can shove an advert at you to tempt you to buy the same thing. 

The proposal is that these cookies will be replaced with a type of group ID. This identifies you as part of a particular “tribe” of people who Google thinks have similar interests. Google will supposedly stop third-party cookies — SOMETIME NEXT YEAR — 2022. They will already have all they need in their data storage by then.

We only have to wait another year for the implementation by Google

It sounds fantastic because third-party tracking is considered to be one of the most intrusive aspects of web browsing. Why? Because it sprays your data around the internet in an unregulated manner, leaking privacy with every new site you visit.

So — after another year — the change will dramatically limit the ability of almost every company on the internet to target specific ads at you. Because they will no longer be able to rely on collecting data second-hand through third-party cookies.  

Best for Google

Except for Google. Who is one of the largest collectors of *first* party data 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 else’s is worse, surely this means that more money gets spent on Google ads, at the expense of other advertisers?

What both cases show is that it is unlikely big tech companies will act in your best interest when it comes to the management of personal data.

Especially if that personal data is what fuels their bottom line. Is a degree of regulation and perhaps some technology rethinking needed?

Europe has led the way to protect private data — GDPR

Europe has led the way in terms of the regulation of private data, and the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) is probably the most comprehensive data privacy law ever enacted.

But does GDPR have any real teeth?

It is estimated that $9 billion was spent in preparation for GDPR. For the last calendar year, DLA Piper estimates that fines across the whole of Europe stand at about 114m Euros.

With the enormous focus on data privacy — that fines can be up to 4% of global turnover, it doesn’t seem that GDPR hasn’t quite got into its stride yet.

Data Privacy – Consumer — why you should care. in the

The future of data privacy probably rests in the hands of the consumer. And the willingness of all of us to pay for the services that are subsidized by the money made from our data.

Tim Berners-Lee, famously the inventor of the World Wide Web, has gone on a mission to reclaim personal data with the idea of data “Pods.” These pods put personal data is in the hands of the individual, and are only handed out on a very selective basis. For this to work, we need to rearchitect the internet. And consider how far convenience trumps privacy.  

Think about something as simple as email. Who doesn’t love being able to go on to Gmail and search for email? Or start a new email and have Google suggest whole sentences for you?

All of this connection relies (today) on Google having full access to your data.

What about Alexa? How great to walk into the kitchen, and switch on the radio. But more than 20 times a day, that same Alexa device is activating and sending data to Amazon accidentally: And somewhere in an office block in Romania, someone is listening to it.

To secure our data, we must start to think more about local processing of data. Including searchable encryption and homomorphic data processing. All ways of minimizing data leakage. It can all be done. And we can do much of it right now. 

But it needs someone to pay. For all our talk about how we want our data to stay “ours,” it is our data that is picking up the tab right now.

Image Credit: andres ayrton; pexels; thank you!

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