15th Dec 2014
We are still trying to forget the incident where Google used its Street View cars to steal user data over Wi-Fi. Before, we could trust these big corporations again; Amazon has recently come-up with an incredibly eery gadget called Echo. It is a small cylinder-shaped gadget that acts as your personal assistant – much like Siri. Echo is always connected to the web, responds to voice, and reacts only when a “wake up” word is used. However, technically, Echo is never off, which implies that it is always listening to your conversations. The possibilities of how much Amazon can learn about my family through this gadget is creepy. We may already be giving out too much information about ourselves than we realise. Makes me wonder if Echo is actually a product or a tool that sells your data as a product to other corporations?
Next up is The Nest Learning Thermostat – a self-learning thermostat that uses motion sensors to detect movement within a home. This device learns users’ habits, and adjusts heat settings accordingly. This is a great product that customises itself to specific user needs and requires the knowledge of users’ movements inside the house to be able to work efficiently. The problem starts with Google’s acquisition of Nest.
As we know, Google’s business model relies heavily on data collection to create detailed psychographic profiles of each user to whom its services and advertisements are targeted. Google along with Nest, now also knows about our movements inside our house. In fact, this data might be the biggest reason why the search-giant acquired Nest in the first place. "When combined with other things Google knows about you, data collected inside your home could turn out to have considerable value to advertisers," says Richard Waters in the Financial Times.
There is a good reason why companies aggregate user data across multiple account and services. Seeming unrelated user data, when combined can provide huge value to advertisers. This is the business model of the Internet. The revenue generated through this data is the reason why services like Google and Facebook can afford to be free and we all like free stuff, don’t we?
The biggest privacy threat however is your mobile phone. Most people generally don’t know or care about how much access they are giving to services on Mobiles. Take Facebook messenger for instance. Given below are some permissions users have to give Facebook to use this app:
- Initiate call or send SMS on your behalf
- Take pictures or video
- Read phone’s call logs
- Read your contact data
- Read personal profile
- Know list of all accounts and apps you use
Some more disturbing permissions are listed in this post. The author Nick Russo says “You’re basically giving a stranger your phone and telling them to do what they want when they want!”
It’s unfair to isolate and blame Facebook. Android app permissions are messy and most apps have to take such permissions from users. But, that’s the whole point. According to a study by HP, an average smartphone user has 26 apps installed and almost all of them have some sort of privacy issue. Technology has become much more invasive than we realise and our data is being used for far more purposes than we think. Why we are not worried yet?
For most people I have spoken to, this doesn’t seem to be an issue at all. They understand that they are trading data in exchange for a free service. And why not? The Digital – Physical fusion is completely transforming their experiences with brands and making things easier and more personalised for them. In fact, personal information is necessary for such services.
Also, most people feel they are in control of the information they choose to give voluntarily to services online. “We don’t have anything to hide” is what you will normally hear.
The problem is that few consumers realise the depth of information they are providing about themselves with their online behaviour or how this information is being used. Your demographic profile along with your usage pattern can help advertisers accurately predict a lot about you. Take for example how Target Retail figured out that a teen was pregnant even before her father did!
The website, youarewhatyoulike.com generates a prediction of your psychological profile based on your Facebook likes. The developers of this website write in this report that “Facebook Likes, can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes including: sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious and political views, personality traits, intelligence, happiness, use of addictive substances, parental separation, age, and gender”. All this only from your Facebook likes! And Facebook may already be revealing sensitive data to its advertisers.
More products are built with data collection features and the biggest challenge is that when this data is shared with other marketers. To complicate matters further there is a real threat of criminals breaking into websites to steal information. “No company can hope to block all ill-motivated insiders or skilled hackers. Massive databases of aggregated personal and government data would present irresistible targets” says Bryan Cunningham of TheGuardian.com.
In August 2014, explicit (mostly naked) pictures of about 100 women celebrities were hacked from their personal iCloud (Apple) accounts and posted online. Earlier this month, Sony Pictures suffered a massive security breach where hackers stole terabytes of employee data including their pay, social security numbers, home addresses, private company discussions and plans.
As users are getting aware, there is a rise in product ideas that help users protect their privacy. Ghostery and Do Not Track are some popular privacy browser extensions. The rise of closed social groups like WhatsApp is a direct response to the need for users to speak privately in an intimate group. SnapChat is a network where the user data is stored only for a few seconds. Who would’ve thought of this a few years back?
However, privacy protection industry is still a very small and not a good replacement for regulations. The European Union is more aggressive than most countries in putting privacy safeguards for its citizens online. Last year, EU’s highest court ruled that unless there is a public interest in retaining a user’s data, search engines like Google must remove links to damaging content on requests from private citizens. However, this is too less, too slow, and we are still far behind in understanding the full impact of technology on our private lives.
Even if we all decide to do something about it, there seems to be no practical solution on the horizon. The only way for an individual to protect his/her privacy is to not use these services. However, in this connected world, can you afford to be isolated from such social networks? More importantly, does it make sense to trade your data for free services?
Opinion: If A Service Is Free, You Are The Product
Are online services worth trading your personal data?
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