Privacy is not just a personal matter

The loss of our privacy is a loss for society and democracy. In a surveillance society, the impact of data collection is not just personal because collective privacy is lost too.

I started working with the Web in 1992, just a few years after Tim Berners-Lee made Web standards available to the public, paving the way for a massive transformation in our lives. A transformation that has been very positive.

I have always believed that access to the Internet and to the information available there is good for society. That is why I founded not one, but two web browser companies. First Opera and now Vivaldi (after losing control over the direction of Opera). I have dedicated my life to helping people get onto the Internet and make the most out of it on their terms. Now, sadly we have real problems to contend with.

During the past 10 years, certain companies have taken liberties. They have decided that our data is really their data and that it can be monetized, as they see fit. Meanwhile, our governments have looked the other way. Maybe they have not understood what is happening. Or maybe they have just seen it as progress. Or maybe they have not dared to stand up to the influential companies behind it.

It is now time for us to understand and wake up to what is happening and turn the tide. But we better hurry.

Data is the new oil?

At a conference I was attending a couple of years ago, many referred to data as “the new oil.” I was rather appalled at the time, but in reality, there may be a lot of truth to the comparison.

Oil and fossil fuels are useful in many ways. At the same time, the consequence of consuming them at scale is a catastrophe, which threatens the planet with climate change.

Similarly, misuse of our data is gradually turning the Internet from a great place to be (barring the odd troll) to a place where all of our actions are tracked, and the data sold to the highest bidder to use for what they will.

Is Privacy a personal matter?

How often have you heard someone say: “I know privacy is important, but I really do not care. I have nothing to hide”.

The problem with this thinking is that your privacy is not only about you. When our collective privacy is lost, there are consequences for us all.

The fact is that our every move is being tracked. This makes us more careful about what we say and do (not that the trolls care), and keep our opinions to ourselves. This hits home with me. I am particularly careful about liking or sharing things on Facebook, knowing that it helps Facebook build a profile on me.

Profiles ad nauseam

Giving up our privacy leads to our data being used to build accurate profiles on us. There are a lot of companies doing research into how the data you share can be used to influence your decisions. This is not only about convincing you to buy things you do not need. These methods can and have been used to influence people during elections. They can even be used to create unrest or otherwise undermine our society

These tools, in the wrong hands, are very dangerous. With our own intimate information, such as love for cats or hate for rats, those using them can get under our skin and make us do things we would otherwise not do. And this does not just happen to “stupid” people which is often claimed. I believe that anyone can be fooled and influenced this way, and I know many good people who have been.

Monetizing us

Some companies think that if we get our fair share of the revenues – instead of just big companies monetizing – the problem of information gathering will be solved.

The issue here is that there are some things that are plain detrimental to society. Yes, like being programmable through services such as Google and Facebook.

You might be able to make a few bucks a year by selling your data, and the company helping you would make a bit as well – they need money to run their show. But the fact remains that your personal data is changing hands.

Sometimes I think of this as selling your body, no matter who the pimp is.

So what data is being collected?

You may be interested in these examples of data being collected.

  • When you visit services such as Facebook and Google, everything you do is tracked.
  • Facebook tracks you when you visit pages of even other websites whether their buttons are shown or not. They’ll know even if you aren’t logged in or don’t have a Facebook account.
  • Google has everything you type in the browser – and this has significant privacy  implications that can be quite revealing.
  • Google tracks your location through your phone and through your PC. The location is tracked through a mixture of GPS, WIFI and Bluetooth information even if you have turned off these services
  • Google scans your email if you use their Gmail service.
  • Google knows about your visits to any sites that have their ads.
  • Google also gets information from their Google Analytics service.
  • Google and Facebook also get data from other third parties, such as banks.
  • There are a lot of stories about photo data and microphones and whether data is being collected and used, and technically it is possible.

Google and Facebook are not the only ones that collect information about what you do. Anyone who has gone through an installation of a Windows machine knows that Microsoft by default will collect a lot of data.

Many others do as well, but often the data they gather is limited. Because the big ones are getting away with it, the rest think they can as well, all chasing after “the new oil.”

Overcoming objections

So why aren’t regulators doing something about this mass surveillance? There are steps being taken by the General Data Protection Regulation, but are they enough?

The problem with the current regulations is that they treat this too much as a matter of personal privacy. More should be done to address the underlying issue of tracking.

The real solution would require taking a big step in regulation and that is hard for our politicians, even those that truly want to do the right thing. It’s just a complicated situation.

They need to take all sides into account, and there are many voices telling them that regulation on tracking would:

  1. Hamper competitiveness of companies in their countries;
  2. Mean that we’d have to pay for the services we now get for free;
  3. Make it impossible to provide those services without access to data;
  4. Do nothing as it is too late.

Now, let’s look at those arguments a little closer.

Would competitiveness suffer?

Facebook and Google have set a precedent on data collection and now other companies are pushing for equal access to information. For example, US telecommunications companies, such as Comcast, AT&T, Verizon and others, can now monitor their users.

Isn’t it better to improve competitiveness for those companies not spying on us by regulating those that do?

Would we have to start paying for services?

These services were free before. Our information was not being sold. The services were quite often ad-driven, but the ads were more generic. Instead of ads following us from site to site, they were typically related to the content we were reading. If we were on a tech site, we would see tech ads, if we were on a fashion site, we’d see fashion ads.

If we regulate companies that are unable or unwilling to regulate themselves, we will remove the unfair advantage and even the playing field. It will be possible for services to thrive without using an advertising model that relies on surveillance data (look at DuckDuckGo).

Facebook and Google would need to change their business models. Maybe they would not make as much money. Maybe they would be more vulnerable to competition. Maybe that would be a positive thing.

Is it possible to provide those services without access to data?

Clearly, if the service provider could not use any data, there would be services that could not be provided. How can you provide traffic information without having information about those stuck in traffic?

I am not suggesting that data cannot be used to provide a service. It is a question of whether that data can be used for other purposes. Your traffic data is useful there and then, and you would experience a benefit in sharing that data to get a better driving experience.

Companies should be custodians of our data. They should not own it or monetize it.

But storing your location every two minutes has nothing to do with that. Selling that information to advertisers even less so. As long as the data is limited to providing the service, we do not have a problem.

Companies should be custodians of our data. They should not own it or monetize it. In fact, they should go out of their way to keep our data safe.

Is it too late to do anything?

No. Clearly,  there is a lot of damage and companies have invested heavily in business models based on surveillance. That said, there were a lot of companies that struggled with the change from content-driven ads to person-driven ads. Every time there is a change, there are winners and losers. Some of the winners last time might be losers now.

We have allowed certain companies to gather data on us which we would never have allowed other companies or governments to do. Now we are experiencing the consequences. The loss of our privacy is a loss for society and for democracy.

When our collective privacy is lost, there are consequences for us all.

Tell your politicians that you no longer want to allow companies to collect data. We can help our politicians be strong and stand against the pressure from lobbyists. Help others understand by sharing this article.

Let’s fix this together!


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