Every day we give away data without even realising it. Whether you are sending an email, browsing on Amazon, or even just swiping your credit card. Somewhere out there on the Internet, you are leaving a data trail. And that data trail is a hot commodity.
I’m writing this on my laptop. To the left of me sits my phone, which is connected to a Google Home speaker that is blasting out music. And right this second the data points that define me are that I love listening to Glass Animals, I prefer to use Google Docs over Microsoft Word, and that I am currently located in the centre of Bristol.
But why would anyone care?
Big companies love to collect data. If a business can frame a clear enough picture of their customer base to figure out exactly what they want, then they can provide the best possible service. But there are usually much more sinister motives at play too.
In 2018 the Guardian and the New York Times broke the news that Cambridge Analytica and Facebook were involved in a data breach scandal. Cambridge Analytica was a political consulting company that worked on both the Trump 2016 presidential campaign and the Leave.eu Brexit campaign, as well as numerous other electoral campaigns all over the world.
In order to gather data on American voters for the 2016 election, Cambridge Analytica used an app designed by Aleksandr Kogan, an academic from the University of Cambridge. This app was a personality quiz that not only collected data from people that signed up, but also all the Facebook friends of the quiz taker. 270,000 users took the personality test, and 87 million Facebook users had their data exposed.
This data was then used to target and manipulate the ‘persuadable voters’, bombarding their social media platforms with propaganda and anti-Hillary Clinton attack adverts, hoping to swing the election. Whether or not Cambridge Analytica was integral to Trump’s win, they were paid a total of $5.9 million by the Trump campaign. Estimates for how much the data used was actually worth run to a much higher figure, but guess who didn’t benefit financially at all from the data transaction?
Ordinary people, like you and I, who didn’t know that their data was being used against them, and certainly weren’t compensated for it.
Don’t we have data protection laws in the UK and EU?
The Data Protection Act of 2018 is the UK’s implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation (GPDR). Under this act you have the right to be informed about how your data is being used, have data erased and under certain circumstances object to how your data is processed. You also have the right to know when an organisation is using your personal data to profile you, predicting your behaviour and interests. But you do not have the right to own your own data.
Is this fair?
My gut reaction is no. As the creators of the data, surely we should have ownership, just as musicians have copyright ownership of their own music, and brands can patent designs. But in a world where companies offer ‘free’ services in exchange for data, this isn’t the case. While ‘data giants’, such as Facebook, Google and Amazon grow rich, users aren’t compensated, and often aren’t told when their data has been compromised.
But aren’t we swapping our data for a service?
Of course, until you make an account with Facebook, they won’t have any data on you. And if you don’t shop on Amazon, then it’s going to be difficult for Jeff Bezos to know exactly what books you prefer to read. But in a world built on the internet, it is almost impossible to go data-free.
Sometimes it isn’t clear that your data is being collected at all
In order to fight fraud, some banks and retailers are starting to track the unique way that you tap, swipe and type on your device. Using sensors on your phone screen or code on the website, banks are gathering thousands of data points on you, known as “behavioural biometrics“. Some are only using the data to spot suspicious transactions, but others are using it to gather profiles that can identify customers by how they tap on a device.
Unfortunately, few companies disclose to users what is really happening when they use their sites. According to Jennifer Lynch, a senior lawyer for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, “It’s a very small leap from using this to detect fraud to using this to learn very private information about you.”
In 2009, the Irish Council for Bioethics noted a “particular concern” about the possibility of “deriving additional health, medical and sensitive personal information from certain biometric identifiers” and the “far-reaching implications”.
Imagine that a user’s once steady hand develops a tremor, and their scrolling is more unsteady than before. The bank can then detect this tremor through its security software, which becomes an issue if the bank is also the user’s insurer.
This might sound a little far-fetched, but as technology progresses, it is a very real problem. And customers don’t even know that it is happening.
So how should we be paid for our data?
Startups have begun to pop up all over the Internet, claiming to pay you for your data. These usually involve taking part in regular surveys, and in some cases the exchange of your data for personalised advert, that you are then paid to look at. However, these websites often don’t have the best reviews, and don’t prevent bigger companies like Facebook from using your data for free.
Instead, the most generally accepted way to pay people for their data is a data tax.
Policymakers around the world have been calling for this tax for a long time now, but issues arise over how exactly to value data. If a citizen data dividend was introduced, how would such an amorphous object like data be taxed, and then paid out?
Politicians currently don’t have the answer to these questions, and tech goliaths are not going to suddenly start paying out without a huge push.
Until people start being compensated for their data, a more open and honest conversation needs to begin. It is time for data education to be included in the curriculum, so people know exactly what they are giving away. After all, data rights are human rights.
By reading this, you have left behind a data trail. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone had paid you for your time? Because somewhere out there, people are getting rich off your back, and you currently can’t do anything about it.
Graphic by Lauren Greenan.