Has privacy become a luxury good?
Data is arguably one of the most valuable assets in today’s world, and is a critical factor determining mergers and acquisitions of many tech companies.
Think of Google. Its acquisition of FitBit increases its data portfolio to include health information of hundreds of thousands of people across the world — to compete with the Apple Watch and Samsung’s health tech. This is in addition to already having data about what people search for, where they live, where they work, their travel patterns, interests, and a whole lot more.
Facebook paid a whooping $19 billion to acquire WhatsApp — its largest acquisition to date. Compare that to the $1 billion acquisition of Instagram. Together, Facebook has become the largest social giant in the world, having immense amounts of data about people. No wonder its targeted ads are controversial in the political sphere.
It’s not just these tech giants that have access to our data, but also every other aggregator. Ever used public Wi-Fi? Then in the very least you have provided your phone’s IP address, and location details, in addition to other contact and personal information. In fact, every website you visit has information about you through cookies.
Moreover, with Internet of Things devices increasingly populating homes and capturing data (read: recording conversations and sending it to third parties), the idea of privacy has turned over its head.
Where does this information go?
One of the obvious answers is advertisements. For example, if you’ve been searching for an item on Amazon and have not purchased it yet, you are very likely to see ads for those products you have viewed on other websites that you visit.
Today data aggregators allow marketers to target people living in a certain area, working a certain number of hours, in a particular industry, coming home at a certain point, living with a small family, and being interested in a select number of things. Who would have thought that to be possible two decades ago? Micro-targeting of advertisements is only possible due to vast amounts of data.
Aggregators argue that the data they collect is for a higher good. They can improve artificial intelligence systems, increase safety, provide emergency assistance, and more. They also say that people can opt out of data collection for advertisements, but that’s a grey area within contracts signed digitally by customers (who often do not read them), and are blocked from using services without assenting to data collection.
Their reasoning is sound, except one clause: it’s about how the data is used. There is hardly any transparency when it comes to who all are tracking your online activity, and from how many sources data is aggregated.
The question then is about anonymity and protection. The problems arise when data is not anonymised, which then leads to safety concerns with data theft.
Today there are businesses built to help you protect your identity online, such as VPNs, services that encrypt data on the cloud, and subscriptions that give you randomised email addresses and contact numbers to access websites without giving true details.
But many of these services come at a cost. In fact, if you want advertisement-free version of services such as Spotify and YouTube, one needs to pay a premium for them.
With tens of devices, hundreds of services, and millions of websites mining for data, privacy is hard to maintain. In fact, is has become something only for those with the disposable income to afford these services; and is increasingly becoming a luxury good.
The world has long since become accustomed to free access to platforms and services online. It is only recently that the right to privacy is becoming a concern owing to ethical and moral dilemmas regarding the use of data gathered by tech giants. And without mass regulatory intervention, people will continue to trade their right to privacy for free services.