Most of us have a vague sense that ‘our’ data is being harvested and used. At times, the clunky use of such data can be hilarious, when a single purchase starts up a chain of ‘People who bought x also bought’, as if having bought a hammer one would suddenly be possessed by the desire to buy a whole shedfull. Even if one keeps away from social media, or avoids having a listening device directly connected to one of the data aggregators, we still give away masses of information about ourselves. Imagine how much data will be generated by self-driving cars, especially if they can also scan the contents of the shopping you put in the back, identify passengers, and collect what you listen to or talk about. They will be the ultimate data collecting devices. The self-riding bicycle may be more of a challenge.
Data is mostly about the past, and largely says nothing about motivation or outcome. Say you went on a cruise to the Baltics last year – does this mean you enjoy being on ships, wanted to visit those countries, are terrified of flying, fell off your bike and aren’t up to walking, had to take your elderly relative for a last holiday, were writing an investigative piece into the awful conditions for cruise ship staff? Did the experience mean that you would never ever contemplate another cruise, or that you utterly loved it? The data is simply that you went on a cruise. Knowing a few facts about someone can be disastrous. Pet birthday cards from businesses which know you acquired a pet but arrive just after you have had the animal put down are one of the saddest examples.
Society is gradually peeling away layers of privacy in all kinds of areas – the recent debate about salaries at the BBC has only been made possible by making public data which would previously have been kept private. Many public figures are now discovering that nothing is ever forgotten, even though they might prefer it to be. In other areas, removing privacy can often result in the removal of stigmas, leading to a more tolerant society. Whether data is used for ill or for good really depends on the user, not on the existence of the data. Hence if we worry about data collection, we are really saying that we worry about the data collectors and their motives.
Given the apparent inevitability of more and more data being collected, maybe we should all accept that privacy is pretty much dead. For the post-millennial generation that may already be true. But ironically those businesses which are hoovering up our data and using it are often themselves lacking in transparency, and not telling us what they are doing with it. There should be a deal here – if a business has got hold of data about me, I should be able to know what they know and how they use it, and if they make money from it then it would only be fair to pass some of that on to me. Hard to imagine this last point ever coming to pass, but no harm in asking, since really we should own our own data. But transparency from the data aggregators is the least we can expect.
David Douce, Independent Researcher