With such recent events such as the Cambridge Analytica scandal and the Canva hack, data privacy has become an increasingly hot topic. Many people are now saying it’s a fundamental human right. But why exactly does privacy over our data matter so much?
Today, we engage in so much activity online that it can feel impossible to keep tabs on all your data. In the morning, you swipe for the tube, at lunch, you put it on your card, in the afternoon, you search Google for personal advice, and in the evening, you spend hours online shopping and streaming.
The visible side effects of these interactions can appear too trivial to really think about. In exchange for using their services, companies collect your data to improve the user experience and promote sometimes useful, and at times creepy, targeted ads. So what?
The problem is, data doesn’t just operate on the level of what’s visible. In fact, it’s this hidden nature of data that wins it the claim of being an even more valuable resource than oil. The fact is, with data all around us, it’s as if we’re all standing in an infinite goldmine. And yet, only those who have a torch, i.e. a means of gathering and processing data, can make any use of it.
The invisible world of data not only means companies can scoop up tonnes of it without you or other companies knowing. Somewhat more importantly, it means your own behaviour and data can be used against you in ways that are often far from obvious.
Inflating the filter bubble
Apart from a few personal modifications, you would think the internet you use and the internet the next person uses are essentially one and the same. But as Eli Pariser points out in his book ‘The filter bubble’, each of us are “increasingly in our own, unique information universe”.
When a company relies on your data for its revenue, its aim is to keep you engaged for as long as possible, whether that be to increase advertising revenue or gather more data on you to further keep you engaged and boost its value. The result is they want you to use their product and not others — regardless of whether it’s in your best interest or not.
It’s why Slack, a tool that is meant to improve workplace productivity and communications, has turned into an interruption and a place to doss about and waste time. It’s also why you can find yourself still spending more time on Facebook despite getting less and less from it.
Data is so powerful it works on the level of unnoticeable and seemingly trivial or inconsequential decisions. For example, at Netflix, your viewing habits affect what image you may see promoting a certain show. As pointed out in a New York Times article, if Groundhog Day is showing and you always watch rom coms, the algorithm may decide you see an image of Andie MacDowell building a snowman with Bill Murray. Alternatively, if you’re into absurdist comedies, you may see a portrait of Chris Elliott wearing a beanie.
We all like news and content that is pleasant, familiar, and that confirms our beliefs. But the real world is far from about getting what’s pleasing or what we want all the time. And so the difference between the online and offline is only growing larger, making it easier for companies to suck consumers into their comfortable havens of safety and certainty. Not least because the more time you spend with them, the more they shaped and better they get at keeping you there.
Privacy or connection
So is the answer to keeping your data safe to simply disconnect from social media and opt of out every service you can? Do you have to make a choice between privacy or connection?
You wouldn’t do business with someone offline and expect them to gather up everything they possibly can whilst doing so. And yet, when we do transactions online with faceless websites and spend our time browsing, there are few boundaries in place that stop this from happening.
Imagine if someone followed you around for a month and documented every single thing you do. If that wasn’t weird and intrusive enough, imagine they then used that sensitive information to create a highly detailed personal profile of you and used it to take attention away from your friends and family and get you to buy more stuff. We would never accept this in the offline world, and yet this is what it’s like when we do anything online.
This Wild-West-like approach has lead to a widespread lack of trust with online businesses along with a somewhat apathetic attitude toward data privacy. Such breaches of trust in the offline world would result in unavoidable consequences, socially and financially, for both parties involved. Most people respect others enough to not exploit their behaviour, especially because they themselves wouldn’t want people to know everything about them. But when you take the human element out of the equation and business can be reduced to numbers, users, and passive actions like clicking OK beside a deceptively short T&C policy, such morals and values are quick to go out the window.
Whether it professional or personal, boundaries are the basis for any healthy relationship. Regard for boundaries is necessary to feel safe and respected when with others and as an individual. When such boundaries are not established or enforced, there is a not only a lack of trust but also the missing components for any sort of relationship to occur. Interactions become nothing more than mere transactions, with the sense of guilty unless proven innocent becoming the default.
As we spend more time online and the world becomes increasingly digitised, it’s important to consider how our data is being collected and used. Without privacy over our data, it becomes like having a watchful eye over everything you do — from how long you spent reading this article whilst you’re at work to how much you’ve spent on clothes this month. Having a right to privacy over our data is like having a right to have freedom over what we say and what we do.
And if that hasn’t convinced you, then surely some random stranger appearing to read your mind and know everything about you will surely do the trick.