When you shop online, watch YouTube, post on social media, and check your email, keep this one important thing in mind: when you don’t pay with cash, you pay with your personal information.
A quote posted back in 2010 by an unhappy MetaFilter user sums it up nicely: “If you’re not paying for it, you’re not the customer...you’re the product being sold.”
In order to access all the “free” stuff the world has to offer, we willingly give up a whole lot of our own personal information on a regular basis. It’s a movement that most of us have just simply come to accept. Or have we?
The answer to that is not so cut and dry. It’s hard to know just how many people—even the majority who report that privacy is important to them—really get the big-picture implications of sharing so much personal information.
What makes the topic even more challenging is that – depending on who you ask – there’s a fairly blurry definition of what personal information actually is.
The Cost of "Free"
Over the last decade, the focus on personal data privacy and protection has had its share of ups and downs. But it’s headlines such as Facebook’s data-sharing debacle that shine a light on how little control we can potentially have over the dissemination of our personal information.
Even before Cambridge Analytica appropriated the data of more than 50 million Facebook users, the public was already uneasy about the privacy of their information online. But is the level of discomfort enough to keep them from signing up to get free stuff or use a free service? Not really.
The Research Won’t Ease Your Privacy Concerns
Studies show that the same people who express worry about various aspects of their digital privacy also acknowledge that they’re not always paying attention to the privacy policies and terms of service they regularly encounter.
The Pew Research Center data shows that most people are anxious, confused, and feel a loss of control about all the personal information that is collected – as well as the security of their data.
Additionally, many agree that we’ve lost control over how personal information is collected and used. Yet even as we express great concern about the privacy implications, 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 people in charge saying whatever they want and what actually happens with our personal data? A big part of the problem is that even though the vast majority of people will tell you it’s important to be in control of their information, most people don’t truly understand how and what types of data are being collected.
The Personal Data Abyss Is Ever Expanding
Social media sites are only a part of the overexposure of our personal data. We are constantly sharing our own personal information with entities that we don’t really know in exchange for something.
Why? Because humans can’t resist the lure of convenience and cost savings when we want or need something. In those moments when we fill out a profile form or questionnaire, we don’t realize that we’re paying for that something with the very data we say we want to protect. Here are just a few common examples of where and when this happens:
- You created and use a Google account
- You took an online personality quiz
- You registered for a grocery or other retail store customer loyalty program
- You have a device that monitors your driving habits to save money on auto insurance
- You use a virtual assistant such as Alexa or a digital video doorbell
- You posted your resume online for your job search
- You use the free Wi-Fi because it helps save your data
- You downloaded apps on your smartphone that require knowledge of your present location and access to your contacts, microphone, and camera
The Price We Pay
Nowadays, whether knowingly or unknowingly, we generate and share a tremendous amount of personal information. And that personal data is extremely valuable. Not only to cybercriminals but to marketers who’ve made it an increasingly invasive, multi-billion dollar industry.
Take Facebook for example. In 2019, its average advertising revenue per user was $29.25—that’s more than double the amount it generated four years prior. Most people wouldn’t be willing to share their personal information for that price.
Implement Safeguards to Protect Our Data
We 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 and passwords. It’s now our behavior—who we are, what we like, what we buy, who we know, where we are, and where we plan to go.
This is the information that’s being captured and monetized by others. We have to educate ourselves and learn to share the responsibility for the digital footprint we leave behind each day. An important part of controlling where our personal data goes should start with simply asking the question, “Do I really want (and need) to share this information?”
It’s also about learning how to handle your data and making sure there’s a greater level of informed consent involved before giving it away. This means taking the extra time to read privacy statements and lock down your privacy using the settings available on each of your online accounts.
Make a conscious, informed decision that what you’re getting is of real value to you before you fill out the next form. While we’re not suggesting this is the solution to all data privacy abuse issues, it’s a start; and we should do whatever we can on our own behalf.
A Ray of Hope for the Future
We are now watching the E.U. and a few pioneering states in the U.S. implement laws requiring businesses to protect the personal data and privacy of its citizens. It’s only a matter of time that America – based on growing awareness and demand – will be forced to develop its own national standard for consumer rights regarding data protection.
It’s yet to be determined if these new regulations are successful in changing the business models of companies that monetize our personal data. But to be sure, the rest of the world will definitely be watching.