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Analytics, Big Data and Protecting Privacy

In the year since Edward Snowden spoke out on governmental spying, much has been written about privacy but little enough done to protect personal information, either from governments or from big business.

Privacy PadlockIt’s now a year since the material gathered by Edward Snowden at the NSA was first published by the Guardian and Washington Post newspapers. In one of a number of anniversary-related items, Vodafone revealed that secret wires are mandated in “about six” of the 29 countries in which it operates. It also noted that, in addition, Albania, Egypt, Hungary, India, Malta, Qatar, Romania, South Africa and Turkey deem it unlawful to disclose any information related to wiretapping or content interception. Vodafone’s move is to be welcomed. Hopefully, it will encourage further transparency from other telecommunications providers on governmental demands for information.

However, governmental big data collection and analysis is only one aspect of this issue. Personal data is also of keen interest to a range of commercial enterprises, from telcos themselves to retailers and financial institutions, not to mention the Internet giants, such as Google and Facebook, which are the most voracious consumers of such information. Many people are rightly concerned about how governments—from allegedly democratic to manifestly totalitarian—may use our personal data. To be frank, the dangers are obvious. However, commercial uses of personal data are more insidious, and potentially more dangerous and destructive to humanity. Governments at least purport to represent the people to a greater or lesser extent; commercial enterprises don’t even wear that minimal fig leaf.

Take, as one example among many, indoor proximity detection systems based on Bluetooth Low Energy devices such as Apple’s iBeacon and Google’s rumored upcoming Nearby. The inexorable progress of communications technology—smaller, faster, cheaper, lower power—enables more and more ways of determining the location of your smartphone or tablet and, by extension, you. The operating system or app on your phone requires an opt-in to enable it to transmit your location. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to avoid opting-in as many apps require it to work at all. More worrying are the systems that record and track without asking permission the MAC addresses of smartphones and tablets that poll public Wi-Fi network routers, which all such devices automatically do. (See, for example, this article, subscription required.) The only way to avoid such tracking is to turn off the device’s Wi-Fi receiver. On the desktop, the situation is little better, with Facebook last week joining Google and Yahoo! in ignoring browser “do not track” settings.

It would be simple to blame the businesses involved—both the technology companies that develop the systems and the businesses that buy or use the data. They certainly must take their fair share of responsibility, together with the data scientists and other IT staff involved in building the systems. But the reality is that it is we, the general public, who hand over our personal data without a second thought about its possible uses, who must step up to demanding real change in the collection and use of such data. This demands significant rethinking in at least two areas.

First is the oft-repeated marketing story that “people want more targeted advertising”, reiterated again last week by Facebook’s Brian Boland. A more nuanced view is provided by Sara M. Watson, a Fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, in a recent Atlantic article Data Doppelgängers and the Uncanny Valley of Personalization: “Data tracking and personalized advertising is often described as ‘creepy.’ Personalized ads and experiences are supposed to reflect individuals, so when these systems miss their mark, they can interfere with a person’s sense of self. It’s hard to tell whether the algorithm doesn’t know us at all, or if it actually knows us better than we know ourselves. And it’s disconcerting to think that there might be a glimmer of truth in what otherwise seems unfamiliar. This goes beyond creepy, and even beyond the sense of being watched.”

I would suggest that given the choice between less irrelevant advertising or, simply, less advertising on the Web, many people would opt for the latter, particularly given the increasing invasiveness of the data collection needed to drive allegedly more accurate targeting. Clearly, this latter choice would not be in the interest of the advertising industry, a position that crystalizes in the widespread resistance to limits on data gathering, especially in the United States. An obvious first step in addressing this issue is a people-driven, legally mandated move from opt-out data gathering to a formal opt-in approach. To be really useful, of course, this would need to be preceded by a widespread mass deletion of previously gathered data.

This leads directly to the second area in need of substantial rethinking—the funding model for Internet business. Most of us accept that “there’s no such thing as a free lunch”. But a free email service, Cloud store or search engine, well apparently that’s eminently reasonable. Of course, it isn’t. All these services cost money to build and run, costs that are covered (with significant profits in many cases) by advertising. More of it and supposedly better targeted via big data and analytics.

There is little doubt that the majority of people using the Internet gain real, daily value from it. Today, that value is paid for through personal data. The loss of privacy seems barely noticed. People I ask are largely disinterested in any possible consequences. However, privacy is the foundation for many aspects of society, including democracy—as can be clearly seen in totalitarian states, where widespread surveillance and destruction of privacy are among the first orders of business. We, the users of the Web, must do the unthinkable: we must demand the right to pay real money for mobile access, search, email and so on in exchange for an end to tracking personal data.

These are but two arguably simplistic suggestions to address issues that have been made more obvious by Snowden’s revelations. A more complete theoretical and legal foundation for a new approach is urgently needed. One possible starting point is The Dangers of Surveillance by Neil Richards, Professor of Law at Washington University Law, published in the Harvard Law Review a few short months before Snowden spilled at least some of the beans.

Image courtesy Marc Kjerland

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