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.
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.