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These days data collection is everywhere and it is constant. From your Facebook activity to your emails on Gmail, the swipes on your Snapper Card to the bench press reps you record on your fitness app at the gym. In one form or another, all of these technologies are centred on the collection of your personal information.
The sheer immensity of this might not be apparent to most people. You don’t really think about the fact that every time you use your student ID card on campus, your name, the time, and point of entry is recorded by the university. You don’t really think about the fact that Spotify has a record of every song, playlist, artist you’ve ever listened to or liked. But the reality is, a huge swathe of the technologies we use everyday constantly record information about us.
To get a feel of the exponential immensity of the data we create in our everyday lives, consider the fact that 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the last two years alone. Some estimate that data production will be 44 times greater in 2020 than it was in 2009. Others estimate an additional 2.5 quintillion bytes of data is being generated every day.
Of course, the nature of data collection is different depending on who is collecting it. Victoria University probably isn’t going to sell your swipe card data to marketers wanting to know more about the use of electric doors by students. But many other companies are. A significant portion of Google’s $70 billion yearly revenue is generated from gathering the data from users interactions with its platforms such as Chrome, Google Maps, and Gmail.
But what are companies actually doing with the data we create?
In short, #capitalism. Put a little longer, they use it to sell us stuff. Or, they sell it to other people who use it to sell us stuff.
Axicom is a great example of the type of company that buys and sells people’s data, and is one of the biggest ‘data brokering’ companies on Earth. Axicom makes money by offering ‘analytical services’ on nearly 150 million households. In 2011, its revenue was just over $1bn, which is small given the emerging big data industry, now sized at over $300bn and employing over three million people in America alone.
Analytical services basically means using complex algorithms and data-sorting techniques to understand more about what things you might want to buy. As the CEO puts it, “companies like Acxiom are trying to get intelligent about what you might be interested in and who you are.” Okay, so far nothing too worrying.
The steadfast conviction of the CEO gets kinda scary, he argues that data analytics are an opportunity for grateful consumers who welcome its arrival with open arms. He goes on, “I don’t think there is a person in the world who wouldn’t agree that data generates tremendous value for both people and for business.”
Scarier still is that this attitude reflects the chorus of voices from technology companies who believe consumers are more than happy to trade their personal information for ‘free’ services like Gmail and Facebook. The president of Mobiquity, a major mobile strategy consultancy claims that “the average person is more than willing to share their information with companies if these organisations [ensure] overall gain for… users.” In 2014 an Amazon survey of 6000 internet users went so far as to say the age of data collection, and the product personalization it enables, will beckon an advertising “Nirvana” for consumers.
But whoa, pump the brakes. As these new practices expand everyday, it might be time we had a bit of a conversation about some fundamentals.
Of course we understand there is a cost to privacy when we use these technologies, you don’t get something for nothing right. And collecting information is fundamental to the function of many of these technologies; Fitbit wouldn’t be much use if it didn’t record our #gainz at the gym.
But who actually owns the data that we surrender to Facebook when we post status updates about the Kardashians, or when we gram the picture of that shit hot Banh-mi from cable car lane? Further, what rights do we have over this data and how it is used? And most importantly, if we disagree with these practices, how do we resist?
Dr Kathleen Kuehn’s media paper “Digital Surveillance and Technologies” had us dive right into some of these heavy issues. The major assignment of the paper was called the Digital Footprint Analysis (DFA), where we had to go out into the world and request a copy of the information that different companies and organisations held on us.
The objective of the exercise was to get us to think about the relationship we had with organisations that held our information. What would happen when you approached Apple and asked for all the data they held on you? What would happen when you approached Kiwi Cabs and asked for all your personal information they held?
I approached a range of organisations and asked for a copy of my personal information. I sent requests via email to Snapper, iTunes, ANZ, Kiwi Cabs, TradeMe, Google, and about a half dozen other government and commercial entities that I knew collected different aspects of my information.
Many New Zealand institutions, like Trade Me, who have to grant users access to their data via the Privacy Act 1993 were ready and willing to offer me access to the information they kept on me. But this willingness stopped cold at the border, with companies like Spotify and Amazon significantly less willing to even entertain a conversation about surrendering my data, in many cases they didn’t return emails or phone calls.
However. The experience I had approaching Apple stuck with me and became the focus of my analysis.
Without going into too much detail (there were phone calls, emails, security verifications, and countless drop down menus on Apples ‘support’ page) I was obstructed from obtaining a copy of the data that Apple held on me. I was allowed access to my account information (things like purchase history, credit card details, address etc.) but nothing beyond this—despite the fact Apple openly admits that it records geolocation data, the sites visited on Safari, all conversations with Siri, and a range of other information.
The whole experience left me feeling powerless and a little depressed. Who was Apple to say I couldn’t see the data that they recorded about me—it’s my data isn’t it, I mean, I put it there right? And if I don’t actually know what Apple is recording, then how am I supposed to know how it might be used?
Was I going to have to throw away my three Apple devices to avoid their data collection practices?
As it turns out, I’m not alone in these feelings of powerlessness. Quite the opposite to the idea that data collection “empowers consumers,” there is a growing sentiment that people feel exploited and concerned by the emerging norm of wholesale data collection.
A recent survey asked 1500 Americans about the control they felt they had over their personal data being collected. It found that infact, people don’t like wholesale data collection at all, but endure it because they feel powerless to stop it and are “resigned” to accepting it.
In the study, ‘resignation’ was identified by two statements: “I want to have control over what marketers can learn about me online” and “I’ve come to accept that I have little control over what marketers can learn about me.” In order for consumers to be identified as ‘resigned’, they had to answer yes to both questions. 84% agreed with the first statement, with 65% agreeing to the second. The resignation overlap indicated that 58% were ‘resigned’ to the fact.
Even more worrying is that when combining these results with those who answered no to the question—“what companies know about me from my behaviour online cannot hurt me”—the findings reveal that a significant portion of Americans (41%) are “not only resigned, they hold a dark concern that the basic dynamics of the emerging marketplace will cause them injury and that they cannot control it.”
Cue some heavy media theory to keep the dystopian theme going. Theorist Mark Andrejevic believes that data collection practices create an exploitative relationship between consumer and those that collect it. He argues that the amount of information being collected by companies could eventually constitute a form of control, “especially in a context wherein consumers have very little knowledge about what information marketers have collected and how they are using it.”
So basically what Mark Andrejevic is saying is that one day, companies will have so much information on us, we could be manipulated by computers into buying stuff.
Postulate with me for a second. One night you’re lying in bed on your computer. You’ve been talking to your recent ex on Facebook and you’re feeling a little blue…
Meanwhile… Facebook knows you’ve recently broken up with your girlfriend and you’ve been chatting online… your Maccas loyalty card knows you’re favorite order is a Mac Attack… Google knows you’re further than walking distance from the nearest McDonalds… and Mastercard knows from aggregated purchase history that people are three times more likely to purchase fast food when they’re feeling emotionally vulnerable…
And what pops up on your newsfeed? Mac Attack Combo with free delivery! Without even thinking you’ve placed the order, devoured the combo, and the burger wrappers and loose fries are laying scattered on your bedroom floor—much like the agency you once had over the things you bought…
Perhaps that’s a little dramatic, but taking these issues to the extreme helps us think about the path we may or may not want to head down, and it brings me to my final point. What power do we have to resist data collection practices if we disagree with where they might be headed?
If you are thinking of looking to the government, I’m sorry I’ve got bad news for you. Currently we are offered some protection by the Privacy Act 1993 which means that information collected by New Zealand organisations can only be used “for its originally intended purpose.” But unfortunately, this stops short of the border. New Zealand legislation has no power in overseas jurisdictions, and it’s in the US where the major data collection companies are operating.
So maybe, perhaps, we could just be conscious-consumers and reject using technologies that record our data in ways we disagree with? Well, again, unfortunately I’m not so sure that’s a great option either.
Andrejevic argues that we are increasingly in a scenario where we must submit ourselves to surveillance in order to access goods and services or forgo “the benefits of consumption.”
In other words, is it really an option to stop using certain technologies? Is it really feasible to go without a Gmail account? Think about the potential economic cost of this decision, have you ever tried applying for a job without an email address? Is it feasible to delete Facebook? But everyone’s on Facebook and you could lose touch with friends or miss out on events, the social cost may be huge. Unfortunately, both of these platforms fully embrace data collection, and rejecting them may not be as easy as first thought.
Coming back to my Digital Footprint experience, Apple claims that yes it records personal information, but it anonymizes that data and does not “connect the dots.” That is, it may record horrendously insidious and detailed information about my interactions with my Apple devices, but it doesn’t match that data with a specific Apple account.
Despite some of the arguably depressing points made in this article, it shouldn’t stop us from forcing a stronger conversation about our rights in light of wholesale data collection.
Data collection is likely a new reality of the relationship we have with technology in the 21st century. But having no power over how our information is collected and used shouldn’t be the cost of using this technology.
There are still strong remnants of the sanctity of privacy in our society, and is something we should continue to aspire for in the digital era. The task is to find a new balance between what we believe is “acceptable collection” of our information, and what aspects of our privacy we want protected.