The great lie about online privacy is ‘unraveling’, according to a damning report in TechCrunch this week. According to them, the ongoing harvest of vast amounts of personal data in exchange for so-called ‘free’ services is “a heist of unprecedented scale.”
TechCrunch claim that it is nothing short of common theft compounded by the fact that most consumers don’t really know what is being taken, how that information is being used and how valuable it can be. They postulate that although the average online consumer may well inadvertently provide consent they do so without real transparency. They don’t really understand what they are giving away and as such abdicate the control of their personal data which is then aggregated by companies whose engines are fuelled by the vast amounts of personal data they require to operate effectively.
Question is – do consumers really care? Well, a recent US study, entitled The Tradeoff Fallacy, suggests that they do but equally they feel helpless to do anything about it. Authored by three academics, the study of 1,500 18+ connected Americans found that over 90 per cent do not believe it is a fair exchange for companies to collect information about them without them knowing, even if they have been offered a discount on a service. What’s more, over 70 per cent don’t agree that it is fair for an online or physical store to take their personal information in exchange for free wi-fi.
The report also raises the issue that the majority of U.S. consumers are generally unaware of how their data can be sold on or shared with third parties without their permission or knowledge. In fact in most instances, they incorrectly believe that they have greater data protection rights than is the reality under the law. They have little or no idea that they are providing their valuable consent to invasive surveillance of where they go, who they know, what they like, what they watch and what they buy. As the authors of the study most eloquently put it:
“Rather than feeling able to make choices, Americans believe it is futile to manage what companies can learn about them. Our study reveals that more than half do not want to lose control over their information but also believe this loss of control has already happened.”
The industry regulators are increasingly starting to focus their attention on the likes of Google and Facebook as are some of the hardware makers like Apple. Coincidentally this week, Tim Cook made some thinly veiled jabs at these data behemoths for “gobbling up” the personal data of their user base.
In his speech he said people should not have to ‘make trade-offs between privacy and security’. Although he didn’t name Facebook and Google explicitly, it was pretty obvious who he was talking about when he attacked companies who had ‘built their businesses by lulling their customers into complacency’. He rather controversially added that, “Apple does not want your data.”
Some critics see this as no more than a cover for Apple’s comparative lack of data, when measured against some of its biggest rivals. Services such as Google Now which uses stored data to predict what information users may need, requires vast amounts of personal data to be effective.
So who is going to protect individuals from this ongoing and unabated data theft? Will appropriate legislation be brought in to govern data protection? Probably not. It’s too complicated, it’s not a priority as it’s considered a soft crime with no real victims and arguably they also have too much to lose? As writer John Perry Barlow succinctly puts it,“Relying on the government to protect your privacy is like asking a peeping tom to install your window blinds.”
The harsh reality is that the individual needs to take responsibility of their own data protection. Assuming they can be sufficiently bothered in the first place…