Companies Making Money From Our Personal Data But At What Cost?
It is the strangely conspiratorial truth of the surveillance society we inhabit that there are unknown entities gathering our data for unknown purposes. Companies and governments dip into the data streams of our lives in increasingly innovative ways, tracking what we do, who we know and where we go. The methods and purposes of data collection keep expanding, with seemingly no end or limit in sight. These range from irritating infringements, including WhatsApp sharing your name and phone number with Facebook so businesses can advertise to you, or a startup that uses your phone’s battery status as a “fingerprint” to track you online, to major intrusions such as Baltimore police secretly using aerial surveillance systems to continuously watch and record the city. Or like the data brokers that create massive personalized profiles about each of us, which are then sold and used to circumvent consumer protections meant to limit predatory and discriminatory practices. These instances of data harvesting are connected by a shared compulsion – a data imperative – that drives many corporations and governments. This imperative demands the extraction of all data, from all sources, in whatever ways possible. It has created an arms race for data, fueling the impulse to create surveillance technologies that infiltrate all aspects of life and society. And the reason for creating these massive reserves of data is the value it can or might generate.
This imperative signals a shift in how powerful institutions view data. A recent report by leading software maker Oracle and MIT Technology Review called The Rise of Data Capital argues that a major reason for the success of companies such as Google, Uber, and Amazon is that they have embraced the mindset of “data as an asset”. The report crystallizes an influential tech trend. Treating data as a form of capital means that firms hoard, commodify, and monetize as much data as they can. And these databanks, they say, can never be too big. German tech firm Siemens echoes this capitalist sentiment: “We need to understand that data is everywhere, and it is generated every second of the day. We need to understand data as an asset – and turn it into a value.”
Contrary to the oft-repeated rhetoric, data does not exist independently in the world, nor is it generated spontaneously. Data is constructed by people, from people. As digital studies scholar Karen Gregory puts it: “Big data, like Soylent Green, is made of people”. Wringing the value from data requires more than just collecting it. Gathering it requires expertise in creating, extracting, refining and using it. This often goes hand-in-hand with increasingly invasive systems for probing, monitoring and tracking people. Now here’s the rub: if corporations and governments are going to up the ante by treating data as an asset, then we – the targets of this data imperative – should respond in kind. Many common practices of data collection should actually be treated as a form of theft that I call data appropriation – which means capturing data from people without consent and compensation. People often do not even know how their data is taken and used, let alone how to give meaningful consent. Data brokers, for instance, aim to provide their services from the shadows, while amassing billions and trillions of data points about people worldwide.
Data-driven policing technologies are shielded by trade secrets, which prevent the public from knowing what data the analytics crunch and how it influences police activity. When companies do seek consent, it is typically through terms of service agreements – overly long contracts are full of dense legal language that users are expected to “agree” to without understanding. It is a remarkable victory for the data appropriators that acquiescence has become the standard model for obtaining “consent.” Data appropriation is a form of exploitation because companies use data to create value without providing people with comparable compensation. While some might argue that Google and Facebook pay us for our data with “free” services, this still does not account for the multitude of data appropriators that have no intention to provide some kind of mutual benefit to those whose data they possess. The data as an asset paradigm has helped create a lucrative market for data – the data broker industry alone generates around $200bn in annual revenue – which cuts out the people that data is about. In short, rampant practices of data appropriation allow corporations and governments to build their wealth and power, without the headache of obtaining consent and providing compensation for the resource they desire.
Data appropriation is surely an ethical issue. But by framing it as theft, we can lay the groundwork for policies that also make it a legal issue. We need new models of data ownership and protection that reflect the role information has in society. In the Gilded Age 2.0, a laissez-faire attitude toward data has encouraged a new class of robber barons to arise. Rather than allow them to unscrupulously take, trade and hoard our data, we must reclaim their ill-gotten gains and reign in the data imperative.
Credit: Jathan Sadowski for The Guardian Data Protection 31 August 2016