In 2018, American companies spent $19 billion collecting or purchasing customer data. Your data is valuable, and the average person in 2020 produces 1.7 Megabytes of new data each second. For comparison, that equates to roughly 850 pages of double spaced text. So every minute of the day, you are generating 12 copies of the entire Harry Potter series.
What is all this data?
A lot of data we generate daily is done without lifting a finger. Most of our smartphones track a myriad of stats and report them to multiple places. Your location, for instance, is reported back to several companies at once (think of any app that lets you “check-in” or tag a location in a social media post). In addition, every website we visit is logged by a browser, our internet provider, the website itself, and any ad networks that the website is employing. All of that before you even click on the cat picture you went there to see in the first place.
The list goes on and on. Pretty much every activity we undertake in our modern lives leaves a trail of data behind it. Every transaction made with a credit or debit card gets sucked up and processed. Every show you stream from the internet gets added to the collection.
Mass surveillance for fun and profit
So who is collecting, selling, buying, and using this information?
Pretty much everyone.
It is a mistake to suggest that only the Big Nine tech companies are responsible for this. Every corporation trying to compete in the modern world wants more data about its current and potential customers. Banks, retail chains, restaurants, car dealers, political candidates all want to know more about your habits so they can find the best way to influence your behavior.
It’s fair to say that any business, non-profit, religious organization, or government entity regardless of size is now in the business of collecting and using data.
The ease with which the data is generated and the efficiency with which it can be collected and analyzed has led us to an interesting point in history. Technology has absolutely outrun social norms and legal statutes. We are in a digital wild west where virtually anything goes.
So what is a body to do?
Adapt and defend
When you hear a politician yelling about how big tech is ruining things and proposing laws that would limit the collection of data, be cautious. Pandora’s Box is open and there is no going back now. It is going to be next to impossible to force companies to stop collecting data. And even if there was a way to craft a law in the United States that actually prevented it, the rest of the world definitely has its own ideas about how to do business.
Instead, we should be encouraging our leaders to think about laws that regulate the use of the data they’ve collected. There are lots of benefits that can be realized if we know enough about people’s behaviors. Everything from faster medical advances to better city planning is already happening through the ethical use of data collected from all of us.
At the same time, malicious or poorly thought out use of data can lead to a host of negative consequences including continued discrimination against marginalized groups, artificial manipulation of public opinion, as well as fraud and theft.
In addition to new rules for companies to play by, it is also important for all of us to educate ourselves on the data we are emitting and to take basic steps to protect ourselves. Things like using not reusing passwords and enabling 2-factor authentication where possible are common sense actions that each of us can take starting right now to protect our digital selves.
Got a question about your data? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on social media @NerdButler. And check out the Electronic Frontier Foundation for great resources and actions you can take to affect data use on a larger scale.