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The day I realised my personal data was no longer mine

I am looking to stay at a boutique hotel in New York’s West Village, I am also apparently looking for a home loan, I compulsively read the Guardian news website and I am addicted to Instagram.

Based on this information, what type of image could you build up of me?

Just over a year ago, my family agreed to participate in a story by the ABC’s Four Corners program entitled “In Google We Trust”. The story by renowned journalist Geoff Thompson exposed the many ways in which we expose our personal data and the extent to which our data trail is shared without our consent.

With the help of some snooping software and a browser add-on called Collusion for Chrome [try Lightbeam for Firefox – Ed], which showed the websites and marketing companies accessing our data and browsing activity, my entire family’s Internet movements were tracked. Those working on the episode – both the tech heads, and the journalists – were able to gain a pretty intimate understanding of the type of person I was, and the type of lifestyle I lead.

ABC Four Corners: In Google We Trust

Click through to watch ABC Four Corners: In Google We Trust (45 min)

As I browsed the net, the researchers, using a remote network, could see which sites had dropped tracking cookies on my system and the other sites my data was being sent to.

So, my decision one evening, during a spell of boredom and curiosity, to compare home loans was now being shared potentially with banks and mortgage brokers around the country. Context was thrown out the window and instead a direct causal relationship between what I searched and what I intended to do, was instantly drawn.

When we rely on computer-based algorithms to piece together bits of arbitrary information, it would be fair to say that it is completely natural for the final causal relationship or connections to lack nuance and subtlety. The way I understand it, essential characteristics of the human experience – such as uncertainty, change of mind, social norms and trends – are often not accounted for sufficiently in these algorithms.

“Katerina googled home loan interest rates.”

“Katerina intends to take out a mortgage.”

Suddenly I had become a prospective home owner who needed to be bombarded with tailored ads for my supposedly imminent property purchase. The ads themselves didn’t necessarily bother me because I just ignored them. What worried me more, however, was the idea that other sites or companies – by now knowing of my ‘intention’ – could possibly modify their own prices, rates etc based on any other information they knew about me.

Targeted advertising is something that we’re all becoming increasingly familiar with. The keywords we type in to search engines, our private email conversations and our social media activity has become the fuel for presenting us with tailored advertising.

Seeing first-hand how my information was being used and also the extent of its distribution, made me realise that this is the price we pay for using free services and accessing free content. We don’t pay Google to use its Gmail service, and instead, we give them the right to sell the keywords they pick up in our emails to marketing companies who then tailor ads based on our supposed interests. In this sense then, we are paying – but with our data and personal information instead of with cash. Many are now proclaiming that data is the new currency – a phrase which is fast becoming a platitude because it has become so widely used and accepted.

The ads themselves didn’t necessarily bother me because I just ignored them. What worried me more, however, was the idea that other sites or companies – by now knowing of my ‘intention’ – could possibly modify their own prices, rates etc based on any other information they knew about me.

Once I realised how wide and far my no-longer-sacrosanct-information was travelling, what did I do?

Initially I was slightly disturbed by how many unrelated and unknown people were using my information. I also felt uncomfortable with the fact that I was just a product – mere fodder to be used for profit. But, one year on from the Four Corners episode I haven’t drastically changed the way I use the web. I didn’t just abandon my online accounts and retreat into an analogue wilderness. After all, this would require a major shift in lifestyle and mindset. And this, I think, is the biggest fundamental problem – the solution to dealing with our concerns for greater privacy is not to completely abandon our online activity, but rather, we need to become more aware of the information we are giving away and to be more critical about where and how it can be used.

In order to be empowered users of the online world, we need to be informed about where our information is going, we need to become more informed about the advertising-funded business models we’re engaging with (especially if we use free services), and we also need to begin thinking about the future implications of creating a treasure trove that contains all of our personal information, activities and habits. Here’s a couple of things that I now do to retain some semblance

1. Read the important elements of the fine print

Most people will not read hundreds of pages of terms and conditions, particularly on a small smartphone screen. I definitely don’t read the entire document but I do now skip to the privacy section or search for ‘personal information’ to read any relevant clauses.

I also felt uncomfortable with the fact that I was just a product – mere fodder to be used for profit.

2. Research before you commit

You can also read reviews of the product you’re buying or the service you’re signing up to. There’s a high chance that, particularly if the product or service is popular, many current users will be able to point out any flaws or security concerns that they have come across. If privacy is a concern to you, it is an easier way to compare products and service than wading through obscure terms and conditions.

3. Only download from sources that you trust

Another important cautionary practice is to never download an app from a website that is not the official Android or iOS app store. Often, downloading an app from a website is a sure sign that the app hasn’t passed through the security safeguards that Apple and other handset makers place on items in their stores.

Many people, like me, are easily drawn in to the allure of instant communication and fulfilment. It is so easy and tempting now to post a photo of an activity while you’re still doing that very activity. While this might, to some degree, change the actual experience, it is also can blind us from taking the time to reflect on our decision.

Katerina

 

[The Four Corners episode “In Google We Trust” is a great piece of video journalism and we would highly recommend everyone to watch it, even if it barely mentions Google at all – Ed]

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