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Big Data And The Consumer As A Product

by Gloria Louden
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As a society, we recognize privacy as a legally protected basic human right. If that’s the case, then why does it feel like it’s becoming an untenable ideal in the digital age?

To answer this question, we first need to understand the difference between the traditional concept of privacy and the more recent “data privacy” that’s creating controversy. Privacy used to be more tangible, involving physical presence and private communications.

Because of this, it was easier to control and enforce. You were the lawful owner of your personal information, and you chose who you shared it with. Whether public or private, any institution you shared your personal information with was expected to respect your right to privacy and keep it safe.

However, as our lives become more digitized, it is becoming easier to track and quantify everything we do. The tech industry’s propensity to regard consumers as data entry points that need to be collected and processed is related to a kind of worship of algorithmic decision-making.

The nature of digital tools is also responsible for this shift in privacy. When you read a physical newspaper, it’s not possible to track which pages you spend more time reading and what type of articles piqued your interest. But when you read news online, this can be easily monitored and quantified, all with the promise of using this data for better recommendations, targeted advertising, and internal operations optimization.

Some are comfortable sharing this type of data and believe that it was never meant to be private. Not in the conventional sense, at least. There’s a significant generational difference when it comes to digital privacy.  

The digital economy of the twenty-first century is a data-driven ecosystem, and sharing our data is the cost of entry. It’s framed as a win-win exchange. Companies gain useful insights, and consumers gain free access to services and a better, personalized user experience.

Unfortunately, that’s not how it usually goes. On the contrary, this “win-win” exchange often works against the consumer and their user experience.

“If you aren’t paying for the product, you ARE the product.” This is a phrase we’ve all heard time and time again and have become so accustomed to not having to pay for most digital products that being the product didn’t seem that bad. It really did seem like a win-win situation, and everyone was happy.

Of course, back then, we didn’t realize just how much data was being collected or how important it was. Those who knew were raking in billions of dollars. The data we gave in return for “free” digital products propelled companies like Google and Facebook into the stratosphere while their personalization algorithms began to mold our thoughts, our tastes, political views, and even our democracies.

Following a slew of high-profile controversies involving Big Tech and digital privacy, we’ve become more aware of how and why our data is collected pretty much every time we interact with tech.

Data Privacy as a Luxury Good

The irony of this situation is that although companies are collecting as much data as they can, very few of them have the expertise to use it to create products and services that actually benefit consumers.  

It’s beneficial to the companies themselves because it allows them to stay ahead of the competition. We can see this illustrated in how Facebook based its decision to buy WhatsApp and on the data it gathered through the Onavo VPN.

Consumers, on the other hand, gain very little from this excessive data collection. What’s worse is that the users whose data is being exploited are presented with privacy policies written in legal jargon they don’t understand and that often discourages them from reading, so they’re not knowingly agreeing to this unbalanced exchange.

Most of the time, the exchange results in poor user experience – persistent ads for products you’ve already bought, creepy ads that follow you from website to website, and inaccurate recommendations – that ultimately undermine the online experience brands are striving for.

At some point, privacy stopped being an expectation and became a luxury. Do you want to escape from the tentacles of data collection? Then you have to pay for premium, ad-free digital services. If you won’t or can’t afford it, your only option is to pay for it with your personal information.

In the United States, Google and Facebook stand out as major tech platforms that base their business model on collecting and analyzing user data. Although the two companies do offer many services in return, they’re still the ones that benefit the most from the exchange.

Amazon and Netflix, despite not being dependent on ads, also collect data from their customers and use it to gain an advantage over competitors. Another problem is that it has become very difficult to avoid using some sort of digital service provided by big tech companies, so whether you like it or not, you have to engage in this rigged data-value exchange.

Apple may be an outlier in this respect since it’s the only major tech company not interested in collecting data from its users. In recent years, this has become a significant selling point for the company, which uses privacy and data protection to set itself apart from competitors and justify its higher prices.

As you’d expect, privacy doesn’t come cheap. It costs a few hundred dollars per year just to opt out of your internet service provider tracking your online activity. Cloud encryption services, VPN subscriptions, private email accounts, iPhones – it adds up quickly.

And what if you can’t afford all that? Is privacy becoming yet another privilege for the wealthy? Is Big Tech turning the internet into a global surveillance network?

Well, despite the dystopian tone of this article, there is some good news for those of us who are too poor to buy privacy. 2019 was a good year for data privacy with legislation such as the GDPR taking effect in the EU, public opinion turning against the status quo, and companies starting to come to terms with the need for stronger data protection.

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