Tuesday, October 29, 2019

All your data are belong to us

I'm riffing today on an old meme - "all your base are belong to us" - the poorly worded alert in a game that was released years ago.  The message was meant to inform the player that all of his or her bases were lost to the enemy.  The statement became a rather interesting theme in the gamer community, and was often seen on T-shirts back in the day.  Perhaps even today?

But what happens when all of your data belongs to someone else?  Doesn't Apple, Google, Facebook and many other firms already own a significant portion of your data, at least what you generate in your transactions through these platforms?  When you add up what data you are giving away for no cost to these social and online platforms, and combine it with what your credit card and financial service vendors know about you, and the amount of data you can obtain about anyone by scraping the internet, pretty soon it will be you who is receiving the notification that "all of your data belong to us".  It might not be surprising to have to pay for your data to be removed or made private.

The right of privacy that we give away

It's interesting to think about the rights we possess.  While not explicitly granted in the Constitution, a right to privacy has always been inferred, and valued by citizens in the United States.  What we are increasingly doing is giving up that right, in fact allowing ourselves to be fully known and our data and records easily obtainable, losing any control or power over the right to privacy.  Your data is increasingly a commodity that larger corporations use, sell and trade to each other to better target you with advertising, to make predictions about what you want or need, where you want to live, how you will vote or even what you want to eat.

The question becomes: does it matter if we sacrifice privacy for convenience?  Isn't the argument that giving up some privacy means we have more convenience, because Facebook, Google and others can customize our information and experiences based on what they know about us?  Certainly these services make our lives a bit easier, and provide more information at our fingertips that is more aligned to our needs and expectations.  But in this I think of an earlier warning, from one of our founding fathers.

Sacrificing privacy for convenience

Benjamin Franklin was confronted by other colonists who were willing to make compromises, willing to give up some freedoms for more security and predictability.  His response was that people who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.  In fact he was suggesting a slippery slope.  The more you get comfortable giving up a little liberty for security, the more comfortable security becomes, and you may be willing to give up more liberty for more security.

Likewise, if you give up a little privacy for low cost and convenience, you are more likely to give up all privacy for free goods and total convenience.  However, those "free" services come at a price - either limited, controlled information that the providers want you to see, or the sale of important data assets that by rights should be yours that you've traded away for more convenience.

Understanding the true cost of free services

What is the cost of giving away your data?  Initially, the tradeoff is simple.  At no cost to you, companies take or harvest data from you while you use their products or social media.  Google analyzes your search terms, Facebook analyzes your network and your commentary.  We give them this right by accepting their terms, in exchange for "free" services.  However, as more and more data is captured about you in more and more places, making connections between that data and learning more about you than you intended is relatively simple.  This is why so many ID protection firms are now able to sell us identity protection services.  From what I can see, the value of your privacy and peace of mind is something many people will pay Lifelock and other companies approximately $10/month.  But what happens as the people who have this data become more sophisticated?

The future is full of offers and recommendations

We are bombarded with offers, information and ads today based on relatively unsophisticated technology and fragmented communication channels.  As IoT, machine learning and ubiquitous connectivity emerge, we will enter a phase of mass customization in messaging and targeting unlike anything we've seen to date.  If you recall the movie Minority Report, in which the public display ads are configured and delivered directly to individuals, then you'll begin to understand what I mean.  The more we share information about ourselves, and the more that data is aggregated and analyzed, the more often and more targeted will be the attempts to communicate to us, influence us and sell us things that seem tailored to our needs.  In the not too distant future your devices, your kitchen appliances, your clock radio, even some of your consumables will all be smart and connected, and will all make offers and recommendations to you that are tailored to your needs, or at least what their producers believe are your needs.  If you think having one child following you around all day asking questions can be annoying, wait until many devices in every room, in your car, in retail establishments and public settings do this all the time.  What will your peace of mind and privacy be worth at that point?

Make no mistake, your data is valuable.  Data about what you do, what you buy, what your preferences are, how you will vote and many other factors about how you live, work and spend are valuable.  If you are going to trade them away, do so for real value, and understand the longer term implications.  While European citizens at least have the expectation of the "right to be forgotten" which is relatively dubious, we in the States have no such opportunity.  While Europeans may believe this right to be forgotten is powerful, in effect it means that a citizen must ask and confirm that every company that has their data legally must be contacted and must remove the offending data.  As long as one company has data, there are opportunities for it to proliferate again.  And that doesn't begin to consider those organizations that possess data illegally.

A couple of predictions

I think there will come a day, relatively soon, where people take back ownership of their data.  In fact we could see several things emerge.  First, a backlash against all of our data so widely shared and distributed, where the individual has little or no control of their data. GDPR is a first, but very watered down attempt at this. Second, an emerging opportunity for insurance to protect and defend our data and the record of our lives against people who would use our data for illegal or what we may consider illegitimate purposes. How will you feel when you are rejected by life or health insurance companies based on information they can collect and analyze about you before you apply? Third, an emerging standard where individuals complete a form that shares data that they themselves create, publish and maintain, and sell on to companies for a profit.  What better source of information about a person than the individual themselves, with an incentive to share more data based on the ability to rent or sell that data themselves?  What could emerge is a single, trusted source that allows people to post as much data about themselves as they wish to share, and for the individual to be responsible for policing and updating the data, so bigger companies can market to their exact wants and needs.

Then, most but not all of our data will belong to us, and individuals will gain more control over the development, publication and use of their data, and the financial benefits associated with the data.  I think we'll all be better served when more people understand the true value of their data, understand how much data is currently available about them and what companies can do with that data, and decide to take back the power to control their data themselves.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:35 AM


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