Blog Post | The Data You Give

My opinion on how valuable our data really is to those in charge. Should the big tech companies take more responsibility for our data?

opinion | tech | data | social media

Is data as valuable as oil? In 2011, five out of the top ten companies in the World were oil companies. Now only ExxonMobil retains a place on the list. Data, like oil, needs refining. It needs analysis to extract all of the important stuff. The data you give can be used to inform decisions, the adverts inserted into our social media feeds and which results we see at the top of the page.


The recording of data isn't a particularly new thing. Back in the 1880's, a young German-American called Herman Hollerith designed a machine that could read holes in cards. This machine was to eventually be used by the US Government to help with the collection of data from the Census. The 1880 census contained too much data for the bureaucrats to process, consisting of a whopping 215 questions.


Rail tickets had already been using the hole-in-the-card technology in order for rail companies to link the tickets to their real owners. Hollerith saw this system as a way to help solve the census data-collection issue. He invented a tabulating machine which had spring-loaded pins. These pins dropped down when a card was inserted and when they found a hole they completed an electrical circuit, which in turn moved the associated dial up by one. The system was eventually adopted by governments, bureaucrats and businesses alike. Hollerith's tabulating machine ultimately became known as IBM.


The richest companies that have ever existed in human history are data-collection experts. As the share of wealth that actually goes to real workers falls and the tech giants avoid paying their taxes at all costs, we should perhaps start paying more attention to what Google, Alphabet, Facebook, Twitter and Amazon are actually doing with our data.


|   The World Economic Forum published an interesting article about:

The Value of Data


If Amazon gets half of all US Dollars spent online in America, and Facebook, Apple and now Alphabet, Google's owner, have all been listed as trillion-dollar companies, you get a rough idea of how much these corporations use our data to enhance their profits.


Big data first hit the political scene back in 2012, and played a huge role in Obama's successful re-election campaign. Facebook used the data they had collected from "willing" participants to create comprehensive profiles of voters. These profiles were then used to create targeted advertisements. The press coverage at the time was largely positive and the number of dissenting voices was minimal. Not what you would expect in the present-day, post-Snowden, post-Cambridge Analytica World that we live in now.


The way it works is that Facebook and other third-parties target who they consider to be the "influencer" in a particular social group. These "influencers" are targeted with ads, and the ad gurus follow the logic that if you can sway the "influencer" you can sway their friends and associates.


|   Watch this video to see:

How Microtargeting Works In Political Advertising


The information gathered by Facebook and those other third-parties uses alarmingly precise adverts to target users. These types of campaigns have proven to be incredibly successful in the past. To obtain this data, companies are willing to buy it, sell it and even steal it . Just like oil or gold, the data generated by social media is a very valuable resource.


Facebook has actually conducted some dubious secret experiments in the past on its unknowing users. Having already consented to Facebook's data policy, they do not need to obtain your consent when carrying out these experiments.


Although Facebook and Google have found themselves in hot water lately regarding their collection and dissemination of our private data, the use of our personal information for targeted advertising isn't something that's about to disappear from the political landscape anytime soon. With this year's upcoming US election, we should be prepared to witness the stakes being upped to the very highest level.


Since the introduction of the EU's GDPR in 2018, France has imposed the single biggest fine against Google (€50 million) for failing to provide adequate protection for the personal data of its users in the EU. The Netherlands, Britain and Germany have received the greatest number of breach notifications to date. Regulators of the GDPR have the ability to impose fines of 2%, and if the case is severe enough, up to 4% of global turnover for companies that do not abide by the rules.


When Edward Snowden leaked classified documents that detailed the extent to which our Governments spy on us, the big tech companies such as Apple and Google decided to take steps to try to hide our messages and digital footprints from prying eyes with the use of encryption. The irony being that these two companies, particularly Google, can trace our every step in the real World and in the online sphere.


Apple was one of the first major companies to include end-to-end encryption, which is "unbreakable" even by Apple itself. However, law enforcement and the Attorney General in the US are putting pressure on Apple and WhatsApp's owner, Facebook, to include a "backdoor" in their encryption software so that the phones belonging to suspected criminals, like the alleged gunman at the 2019 shooting at a US naval base, can be opened and the messages retrieved and used as evidence.


Law enforcement is basically asking the tech companies to engineer a "backdoor" that only the good guys have access to in order to catch the bad guys. In reality, just knowing that a backdoor is possible is enough to send spies and criminals into a frenzy trying to "crack" these backdoors for their own nefarious purposes. When they do crack these backdoors (which they most certainly will), then all of our data is in jeopardy.


"Hurting everybody's security for some forensic evidence is a dumb tradeoff."

Bruce Schneier   |   Encryption Expert

Bermen Klein Center for Internet & Society   |   Harvard University


In contrast, the EU's advocate general, Campos Sanchez-Bordona, has recommended that access to the personal data of individuals should be limited, and only accessed when it is deemed absolutely necessary to effectively control and prevent crime or to safeguard national security. If the advice of the advocate general is followed, metadata such as location and traffic, will be subjected to a high level of protection in the EU, and Belgium, France and the UK will have to amend their domestic legislation.


Privacy and the collection of data was also a hot topic at the recent CES tech show in Las Vegas, with startups taking the initiative to volunteer information regarding their security protocols and use of the data they collect from their users. It seems that new tech companies have heard the concerns of citizens and are taking them on board.


Amnesty International also published a report last November accusing Facebook and Google of violating the basic human right to privacy. They have called on Governments to legally guarantee individual's rights not to be tracked by advertisers or other third-parties, and have called the current regulations inadequate.


The meteoric rise of the internet and its impact on the lives of almost 4 billion people around the globe, makes it a vitally important tool for individuals to be able to communicate, stay up to date with the news, find employment, a house, a new partner and so much more. It has now been acknowledged as a fundamental human right, ensuring that all people should be able to access the internet in order to enjoy their rights to freedom of expression and opinion. 


With the data-collection behemoths, Facebook and Google, controlling the World's social media and how we access the internet, shouldn't they take their responsibilities to us more seriously? It's hard to imagine an internet without them, but that doesn't mean we should sign over every aspect of our lives to them, just to be able to check the quickest bus route or send a message to a friend.


Perhaps they're too big to fail, but we can at least try to put enough pressure on them to try harder. 

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