I know it’s in vain, but I keep Location Services turned off on my phone when I’m not using Uber or some other mapping app. In my head, this reduces the number of apps that can track my movements, and thereby removes just a bit more of my personal information from the amorphous cloud.
Sadly, I Am Completely Wrong
In 2018, researchers showed that by using readings like time zone and air pressure, they could approximate the location of almost any phone. Because these readings aren’t considered private and only represent a tiny amount of data, they aren’t protected.
Now add to that all the data I simply give away, such as friends on Facebook, shopping preferences on Amazon, and viewing habits on Netflix. Each platform provides a “pass through” service of a sort, but then uses many characteristics about me to make money by selling ads and tailoring offerings.
Funny, they never drop a check into my account to share the revenue.
Now We’re Going Further
As more people spit into a tube and mail it off to DNA-testing firms like 23andMe, we’re adding our genetic sequencing to national databases… and we’re paying for it!
Besides… $5 billion? It’s a drop in the bucket.
And companies that “anonymize” data aren’t helping, either. Medical organizations often share data to further research. But before sending it along they strip out information that could identify the patient. The only problem is, it doesn’t work.
Recently a group of researchers figured out how to re-identify individuals using just a few characteristics from anonymized data.
As the New York Times reported:
Scientists at Imperial College London and Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium, reported in the journal Nature Communications that they had devised a computer algorithm that can identify 99.98 percent of Americans from almost any available data set with as few as 15 attributes, such as gender, ZIP code, or marital status.
After figuring out how, the researchers did something unusual…
They Published The Algorithm
So that anyone could use it for free.
Their goal was to allow all entities that develop data sets to test their systems to see if they were vulnerable. That’s noble and all, but it also allows anyone with a data set to figure out who the people are!
Even the low-fi rewards cards at the grocery store track you!
As the case against Facebook shows, there’s a growing backlash among consumers about their lack of privacy. But you can’t put that genie back in the bottle.
Some, including me, have called for Facebook and others to create paid versions of their platforms where we can opt out of ads, tracking, and the general lack of privacy. One estimate shows that Facebook makes $82 per year from each account in North America, so considering its user base, $6.95 per month ought to cover it.
We Need A Paycheck
But how about we go forward instead of trying to go backward? Each entity selling our data gets paid. They need to pay us… and it won’t be cheap.
I don’t care if it’s a third of a cent per medical record impression, or six cents on a digital ad. Those sound like small numbers, but after a while, they add up.
If I’m so valuable to Facebook and other sites like it, then they should be paying that revenue forward. Sure, I might have to pay for services then, but that would be fine. At least I’ll be able to regain at least some control over my information, even if I can’t keep it private.
All Of This Does Have A Down Side.
With the FTC and other agencies investigating big tech firms, and individuals demanding more accountability in protecting their privacy, companies like Facebook could soon find themselves with diminishing revenue from advertisers. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s possible. If Amazon, Facebook, Netflix, and Alphabet take a hit, the equity markets will suffer.
At that point, we’d have to consider whether we’d like to control our data, or keep booking gains in our investment accounts. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know which one of those two things you’d prefer. Unfortunately, we can’t have both.