The future of data privacy
Letter to the Editor | Monday, November 4, 2019
We are writing today in hopes to promote further discussion about user data, its usage and the privacy concerns associated with it. In this letter, we are hoping to bring to light some common misconceptions about data usage, as well as highlight some of the dangers that could arise if regulations and changes aren’t made soon.
One of the most common discussions regarding user data focuses on users’ lack of knowledge on how this data is used, how long it is kept for and exactly what kinds of data points are being collected. Google Maps is able to reconstruct an exact path of where you’ve been and when you were there, regardless of whether you are actually using the app. This type of information should be made clear to the user, and companies in general should be more transparent about their user data usage.
We agree with Richard Stokes, a former top executive at an advertising company, and believe that users should have the option of opting out of data collection if they want to. The assumption that every user likes targeted ads is an overgeneralization that has been proven to be incorrect. A Pew study shows 61% of people want to do more about protecting their privacy. However, as discussed in our Computer Science Ethics class, many people aren’t sure if they are able to actually do it. Stokes describes how third parties are selling very personal data — such as income, mortgages, addresses, vehicles owned and political stances — to advertising companies and making millions of dollars on it. In an effort to respond to this, the third party application stopdatamining.me allows users to manually opt-out of data collection applications they probably didn’t even know they were on. This situation creates a vicious cycle where our data is being passed, sold or deleted by third parties and used by anyone willing to pay the right price. There needs to be more transparency and accountability with data so users know who has it and have the option to opt in or out in an easy and direct way. Companies should respect users who decide to opt out, and should still provide the entirety of their products or services to these people.
As computer scientists and product designers, we know there are ways for companies to innovate around such constraints if they are instituted. Core services should be allowed to any general user. If a company needs and desires a certain mass amount of users to opt into data tracking, they could create extra incentives for a certain amount of users to opt in.
The dangers of data collection and surveillance are huge. A Forbes article describes a very real example of data interpretation gone awry. Let’s say someone withdraws money from an ATM and goes to a casino every Friday night. It might be easy for companies to look at this data and think that this person has a gambling problem, and they should show this person gambling ads to try to make money off of them. But what if this person just prefers cash to credit cards, and really likes the food at this casino instead? And then, a couple of years down the line, hiring companies can see this data and assume they have a gambling problem, when in reality they don’t. As the years go by, it’s only going to become easier and easier for companies to build an online, digital profile of you that you don’t even know exists, based solely on the data they collect from you. What’s to stop companies from selling this data to other companies down the line? What if you’re applying to jobs and a company doesn’t hire you because they didn’t like where you’ve been and what you’ve searched for on the internet? This is a reality that truly isn’t very far off.
In conclusion, we agree with and would like to echo the final three points made by Stokes in his article. Users should have a choice about the data that they share, if any at all. The exact chain of where a user’s data is going and who its being shared with should be made obvious to the user.
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.