ANS Blog

Sharing Personal Data: When You Become the Product

April 03, 2018 in Data Privacy

Sharing Personal Data: When You Become the Product

This week as you browse the web, shopping for special deals, watching YouTube videos or using your Gmail account, keep one important thing in mind. When you're not paying with cash, you're paying with your personal information.  

These days, in order to access all the awesome free, or discounted, stuff on the web, we willingly give up a whole lot of our personal information. It’s a movement that most of us have just simply come to accept. Or have we?

A 2010 quote posted by a seriously unhappy MetaFilter user sums it all up nicely: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”  It’s hard to know just how many people are actually aware of the big implications of this statement; or whether they even care. What can be definitively stated is that, if they don’t, they should.

The Cost of "Free"

The recent Cambridge Analytica/Facebook data privacy controversy is proof point that everybody wants stuff for free, but seldom do we ever question what it really means to get something for free. Over the last decade, the focus on personal data privacy and protection has had its ups and downs. But it’s headline news like Facebook’s data sharing debacle that shines a floodlight on how social media companies, and so many others we interact with, collect our information and make it available to others.

Studies conducted by the Pew Research Center show that most people are anxious about all the personal information that is collected and shared, as well as the security of their data. In addition, almost all participants agree that we’ve lost control over how personal information is collected and used by all kinds of entities. Yet, even as they express great concern about the privacy implications of doing so, the number of people who say they would find it hard to disconnect continues to rise.

So how do we bridge the chasm that exists between the control people say they want, and what actually happens with their personal data?  A big part of the problem is that even though the vast majority of people will tell you that it’s very important to be in control of who has information about them, most people don’t truly understand how and what data is actually being collected.

The reality is, social media sites are only part of the overexposure of our personal data. We ourselves, are constantly sharing our own personal information with entities that we don’t really know, and without fully understanding the implications, in exchange for something. Why? Because we humans can’t resist the lure of convenience and cost savings when we want or need something. So, in those moments when we are filling out a very innocent looking profile form or questionnaire, we don’t choose to over analyze the fact that we’re paying for that something with the data we also want to protect.  Here are just a few common examples of where this can happen:

  • You created and use a Google account.
  • You registered for a grocery store, or other retail store, customer loyalty card.
  • You agreed to let your car insurance company monitor your driving habits to get a discount.
  • You posted your resume online for your new job search.
  • You used the free Wi-Fi available because it helps save your data plan and is a lot faster than 4G.
  • You loaded apps on your smart phone that require knowledge of your present location or request access to your contacts or camera.

The bottom line is that we now live in a time when we generate and share (both knowingly and unknowingly) a tremendous amount of personal information. And that personal data is extremely valuable.  Not just to cybercriminals, but also to marketers who have figured out how to make it a multi-billion-dollar industry that’s become increasingly invasive. Let’s just take Facebook, for example. Last year, Facebook's average advertising revenue per user was $20.21—that’s double the amount it generated just three short years ago. When you turn that situation around, it seems like most people, if asked to trade a large portion of their personal information for $20.21, would not be willing to share it for that price.

What can we do to protect ourselves?

We first need to acknowledge that the concept of personal data has changed drastically over the last decade. It’s gone way beyond our credit card numbers or passwords. It’s now our own behavior—who we are, what we like, what we buy, who we know, where we are, and where we plan to go—that’s being captured and monetized by others. So, we have to educate ourselves and learn to share in the responsibility for the digital footprint we leave behind each day. An important part of controlling our personal data can start with our own behavior. Stopping to ask the question, “Do I really want (and need) to share this information?”

It’s also about learning how to handle your data and, as much as possible, make sure there’s a greater level of informed consent involved before you give it away. Taking the time to read privacy statements and lock down your privacy using the settings available on each of your online accounts. Making a conscious, informed decision that the something that you’re getting is of real value to you before you fill out the next form. While I’m not suggesting this is the solution to all of our data privacy abuse issues, I’d say it’s a start; and we should do whatever we can on our own behalf.

As we watch the EU implement its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)— a regulation that requires businesses to protect the personal data and privacy of its citizens—I believe that America will eventually be forced, based on growing awareness and demand, to develop its own standard for consumer rights regarding their data. Only time will tell if GDPR is successful in changing the business models of companies that monetize personal data; but to be sure, the rest of the world will definitely be watching.