“Every minute of every day, every action, reaction, decision, event and process is being expressed as data – data that is collectable and yielding knowledge.”
––Ginni Rometty, Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer, IBM Corporation
Data is everything and everywhere – the crucial element running operations from social media and artificial intelligence to the internet of things and blockchain technology. Entire supply chains, power grids, transport and healthcare systems rely on its safe and efficient flow. Can you imagine what would happen if someone were to hack wireless pacemakers or tamper with traffic lights? Funny, isn’t it, how data, something so impersonal- and amorphous-sounding, could directly impact our lives.
The tech titans of our time – Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft – have made untethered, unlimited access to our personal data a core part of their business models. Our social activities, entertainment preferences, gender orientation, travel patterns, economic status, political leanings, emotional triggers, hidden quirks are all-you-can-eat buffets for corporations. Knowingly or unknowingly, we give up this information in exchange for products – search engines, News Feeds, free one-day shipping and the like.
While this is a clear transaction between companies and consumers, we don’t recognize it as one. Moreover, our data-driven economy is rampant with privacy breaches and online manipulation. Mark Zuckerberg’s Congressional testimony earlier this year regarding Facebook’s data privacy practices indicates how little we know about data abuse. “We didn’t take a broad enough view of our responsibility, and that was a big mistake,” he said, his apology bordering on a humble brag.
As attractive as this market may be, though, it’s not an easy one for startups to enter, let alone outperform the tech giants who by design and intention have eyes and ears everywhere. If our Internet browsing, social media shares and online purchases reveal competitive new products, they can choose to buy it out, as Facebook did Instagram in 2012 and Google did Nest Labs in 2014.
In a constantly connected world, we are Hansels and Gretels leaving behind data crumbs for the witch to pick up at will. The free-for-all strategy that allows companies to collect data with reckless abandon has led to a collective sense of invasion and loss of trust in media. We need civic engagement around sustainably sharing, protecting and profiting from data in the same way we rally around social, environmental and political causes.
Now you can download a copy of everything Facebook and Google know about you. “Download your data” is a clear call-to-action in a post-privacy economy that treats you like a product. It’s the first step towards being informed, so that instead of data making decisions for you, you decide how your data is used.
If you own your body and your money, you should be able to own your personal data. Here is an opportunity to put a price on the information we give up in exchange for services, especially if those services appear to be free.
Now that data is a part of mission-critical systems, it helps us understand the way the world works. But data itself isn’t wisdom; what matters is how it’s used. True stewardship means protecting our data with strong encryption and security, regulating the power structures that control its flow and being transparent about cyber threats. We need to shape policies that are a win for citizens, customers, companies and government – in that order.
My own Facebook data is endlessly fascinating. I apparently am an Indian expat belonging to the friend peer group of “starting adult life,” with a “somewhat liberal political affiliation.” My top interests are dogs, air travel and women’s rights. My favorite people include Prince Harry and Snoop Dogg. As for my Google data, it’s downright dystopian. A folder titled “Voice and Audio” contains hundreds of audio clips detailing every interaction I’ve ever had with Google Home. Another folder Maps lists all the locations I’ve searched and visited, right down to their coordinates. I shudder to think what would happen if this information fell in the wrong hands.
Journalist Radhika Sanghani observes, “The word ‘data’ makes it sounds like we’re talking about numbers, but what we’re really talking about is our friendships, our relationships, our memories, our ups and our downs.” If our online selves have been reduced to data, they deserve better. We must fight for them to be downloadable, trackable, accountable and equitable.