Why Your Digital Data is so Valuable
In the age of an ever-expanding digital world the public is beginning to hear more reports of large companies misusing and mishandling sensitive, private consumer data than ever before. What could possibly be so valuable about the information that a company or service is collecting on you? Why should consumers be more concerned and why are the wrong questions still being asked?
Let’s dive in.
What is this data that is being collected anyways?
Well, it varies. It can depend on what service(s) you are using, what information that service collects in the background, and what information you voluntarily give to the service to increase the functionality of that service and/or for your own convenience.
Some services collect information in the background without the user being explicitly aware that data collection is occurring. Most recently, the City of Los Angeles filed a lawsuit against The Weather Channel (TWC) citing that its weather application was collecting location data of its customers in real-time, every day, even if the application was not in use and then claimed that TWC was selling that data to advertisers. TWC has since denied all of the claims documented in the suit. (This case was first reported by Bloomberg and the New York Times, and you can find more information here.)
Lastly, any information that you voluntarily give over to a service is obviously being collected somewhere. All of those “free” services that allow you to sign in with Facebook, Google, or some other third-party platform is data that you are handing over to the individual or company that runs the service you are signing up for. Let me be clear, you are not giving that company your username and password into your account, but you are giving that company data as to what other services you use, and other personal details like the name attached to your account, your email address, and maybe even a phone number. This feature to create an account with one service by using an account on another service is called single sign-on. In recent months, we have also seen reports about this data being shared between companies for revenue and larger security breaches that have left millions of consumers’ data accessible to hackers.
Nothing is perfect, clearly. Just because a company is open about what information it collects and allows you to see that information, that does not automatically make it superior to a company that does not provide that option. It also raises questions about whether or not companies report all of the information they have collected about you. As consumers, we place a significant amount of trust into the companies that store our data. In light of a pattern of reports that companies are misusing this data, it has consumers reevaluating that trust.
Why is this information so valuable?
For one thing, as consumers we don’t even have a complete picture of the information that is being collected. No company has - or is going to - directly disclose all the information that is collects. Period. Through recent reports we have a general idea of what data is being collected: name, age, sex, email address, your location and location history, the websites you visit, your IP address, and more. This data collection might encompass a much larger umbrella - and it probably does - but as consumers we are still unaware of what that might consist of.
The biggest reason that your private information is so valuable is simple: money. The biggest use of the information that companies collect is sold to advertisers. Most commonly, the location data that is collected about you is shared with those advertisers (The Weather Channel and its mobile app, Facebook and its mobile app, etc.). Advertisers can then target ads to you individually using your device’s unique IP address and general location. This increases the chances of you clicking that ad and making the advertiser money. If a service knows your general age and sex (which more often than not you voluntarily give to a service to create an account) they can further use - and sell - that information to target tailored ads to you specifically. Males of a certain age group are more likely to click on an ad as compared to females of a certain age group, and vice versa. This further increases the odds of the advertiser getting an ad onto your screen that you are willing to click on.
Companies can also use the information they collect to sell you more products, or possibly get you to purchase a more expensive tier of their service if they know your usage habits. Again, it all comes back to one simple thing: money. Some companies and services are fine with selling your private data to the highest bidder - so to speak - and others just aren’t (or aren’t as far as we know today).
Why should I be more concerned?
The data that companies around the world are collecting pose a significant threat to your basic privacy not only online but in the real world as well. When signing up for a service or an account with a company, most people would argue that there is a contract between that person and company to respect the data that is being shared. However, more often than not your trust and privacy are broken. Not only is your name, age, and sex being shared to those with deep pockets, but where you are in the world, your email address, your habits, likes, and dislikes are all being shared and used against you.
Most people would be incredibly uncomfortable walking around in public telling people how old they are, where the live, when they are away from home, what their likes are, what they bought on Amazon yesterday, etc. Yet, this is exactly what is happening with your data online. Companies can get your location data to see when you are away from home, how often you message someone, etc. That is a major concern, especially if that information is being used for more than just advertising.
The argument of “I don’t have anything to hide, so why would I care” is simply overlooking the bigger picture. I would bet that even if you don’t have anything to hide you wouldn’t want to go around telling people this personal information. The better question is why are companies being allowed to get away what they are choosing to do with this sensitive data?
What can be done to prevent the misuse of my data?
Well, until legislation and regulation are passed not much. Our current legal system is too outdated for technology simply because it is almost constantly changing. The first thing that we should be promoting our legislature to do is to pass regulation measures about how our consumer data is stored, basic protection measures that companies need to take, and a strict zero-tolerance policy for using consumer data for profit in any way.
Legislators and the general public also need to legally define “misuse of consumer data” to ensure all parties understand what would constitute as a crime. Making sure that our legislators are well informed and knowledgeable to empower them to question larger tech corporations about their data collection methods would help to aid in the creation of these legal definitions and laws.
All parties must be open to working to refine and amend these definitions and laws as technology expands and evolves. Most importantly, everyday citizens like yourself must be informed promptly and accurately with as little bias as possible.
The debate over data collection is intense, and there are many different perspectives to be take into account. However, unless we establish basic rights between companies, consumers, and their data the only people that will lose will be everyday men, women, and children across the globe.
There is no question that technology has made life easier, more efficient, and more productive than ever. However, our data privacy should not be the cost to that gained efficiency and productivity.
What are your thoughts? Do you feel like your online privacy is being sacrificed for marginal gains in efficiency, or do you feel like the security debate is overblown? Let myself and other readers know below!