The Future of Privacy, Ethics, and User Data

I’d like to think I know myself best. But Google might know me better.

The data that companies have on you is knowingly immense but ultimately necessary for a successful and positive user experience. Netflix’s ‘shows you might like.’ Amazon’s suggestions for your next purchases. Instagram’s explorer page. All of these features help to maintain a unique, personal, and attractive platform.

But, as Professor Kane mentioned in class, where is the line between creepy and cool ? How much data is really being collected? How is it being used? (Do I even want to know?) These are the next big questions for major companies, and the time for accountability is now. A clear example of this is Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, passed in May of 2018. This legislation has broadened the rights and protection of the individual through specific measures, such as requiring companies to request consent before collecting user data and making it easier and free for the user to access said collected data. The GDPR has now become a global standard for online protection and privacy, a sweeping federal statute much lacked here in the United States.

One of the strongest elements of the GDPR is its ability to fine companies that do not abide by these laws. And the first major breach has just occured by a name we have all heard–Google. With a charge of 57 million dollars, French regulators have accused the platform of not properly disclosing how data was being acquired as well as lacking consent to modify personalized ads. While of course many other corporations are doing just this, this lawsuit has undoubtedly expedited the conversation of privacy. And there is no going back now.  

Another new, unsettling discussion is Facebook’s recent announcement of integrating three of its major messaging apps: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram. CEO Mark Zuckerburg has stated that by merging all three, a WhatsApp user could text an Instagram follower without switching apps, making the experience “faster, easier, and more reliable.” However, serious concerns have immediately been brought to life, particularly in terms of privacy. Currently, WhatsApp is the most secure with full encryption and no company can access the content–not even Facebook itself. While Facebook Messenger has an option for encryption, it is off by default, and Instagram offers no encryption at all. That being said, by integrating all of these apps, it is more likely that WhatsApp will become less secure instead of Instagram and Messenger becoming more secure. The changes that follow for each individual app may have unique consequences but one thing is consistent among them all: Facebook will now be able to access and intercept all of your content.

Matthew Green, cryptologist at John Hopkins University, has gained attention through his response to Zuckerberg’s announcement via Twitter.

While these companies are responsible in securing and protecting the individual, the next question to follow is this: How am I, as a user, protecting myself? It is easy to assign total blame on the company itself because we rely so heavily on it. As Green writes, maybe it is time we begin to shifting away from conversing on these apps. But can we? And should we? Many reputable people have begun to answer these questions in unique ways. Jennifer Lyn Morone literally incorporated herself in order to assert ownership in the data she creates. The Verge’s journalist Jon Porter took action in his own hands by downloading his data from Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google, and then publishing his experience. Derek Banta, director of UPS’s portfolio for global production concepts–and self-proclaimed ‘data privacy enthusiast’–answers these questions as well. In his TED talk given in July of 2018, he promotes an ‘a-commerce solution,’ in which one third party collects and encrypts your personal data and allows you to shop and exist anonymously online.

Derek Banta’s TED talk regarding data security. Short, sweet, and giving us a lot to think about.

And these are just a few of the thoughtful solutions and new ways in which the users themselves are beginning to reclaim their right to privacy online.

These two recent events, spotlighting such global platforms, have reminded people of the importance of what user data could mean and the effects it could have over the next few years. More importantly, the way that these two examples turn out will represent the future of how data can and should be used. The ethics here are muddled. There is no clear cut answer. And Google’s ‘don’t do evil’ mantra is becoming grayer as we speak. However, I am optimistic to see how governments, users, and companies respond to the growing conversation of data security. The rights of the participant are now being brought to the forefront. That in itself is already changing the game.

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7 thoughts on “The Future of Privacy, Ethics, and User Data

  1. Great post! It’s interesting, but I guess understandable that I also mentioned issues of privacy in my blog post about cashless payment. It’s quite obvious now that no matter what kind of technology a company does, there will always be concerns around the legal and ethical aspects in obtaining user data.


  2. Great post. This was the perfect context to reference the “creepy-cool line” given how these advancements come in small incremental steps and become intrusive before we realize it. The scary part about Google being fined $57 million is that it is possible that they most likely were warned by regulators before this fine went into place, and maybe they chose to pay it rather than change their ways because of how immensely profitable it is to be subversive with user’s data. Just a theory!


  3. Very interesting post! I am very interested to see how the merging of WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and Instagram messenger will entail for all three platforms. The user data discussion combined with the readings on platforms that we have for class tomorrow makes me wonder how valuable large platforms like Google would be if consumers opted to withhold their data. Clearly data needs to be more secure, but I would love to see what these platforms would like if everyone opted to exist anonymously online.


  4. Cool post! I appreciated your discussion of where the line of responsibility falls between the individual and the company. It is very easy to blame companies like Google or Facebook for breeches of our own private data, but at the same time, it is worth it to ask what we should be doing as individuals to protect ourselves. I think that the data revolution happened at such a large scale because so many people did not (and do not) realize the scope that these big companies have and the level of data that they can access and sell. After all, companies like Facebook and Google are in the business of collecting and selling data. Determining how far is too far is an interesting debate.


  5. Hey Mackenzie! Great post. I don’t see this discussion about privacy and ethics in technology fizzling out any time soon. I don’t use WhatsApp at all and hardly ever use Facebook Messenger or Instagram anymore, but the idea of merging those three apps together and potentially hindering the amount of privacy available to users of these apps, especially WhatsApp, seems like it could have adverse effects for the company. I’m sure they’re marketing the move as a positive, allowing better ease-of-use to customers, but people shouldn’t just shrug their shoulders at the potential data breach, and I have a hard time believing this will come to fruition as smoothly as Facebook hopes.


  6. Intersting and well thought out post! I really like your turn towards asking what are the responsibilities as a consumer to protect our privacy. One thing worth mentioning is that companies like Facebook and Google are in the business of selling our data because it allows them to be profitable while still offering a free service. I wonder how these things would change if companies started charging a monthly subscription instead of using ads and data. As much as I hate it I think it is unreasonable for us to get mad at a company for making a profit off our data when we ourselves use that company’s service for free.


  7. Hey Mackenzie,
    Great Post! I thought it was very interesting how Facebook is going to integrate all three of their messaging apps. Going off our class discussion about this I wonder how this is going to affect WhatsApp’s reputation of being a very safe and secure messaging service. I bet most people weren’t even aware that Facebook owned it, and that may lead to a drop in customers. Topics about privacy are very prevalent in conversations with my friends as we started to notice that we get Instagram ads especially about products that others have talked about when they are with me, but I have never googled them… creepy!


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