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Human attention is the fuel that powers today’s online markets. Collecting user data gives companies an idea of how consumers spend their time and the ability to personalize the user experience. Using this knowledge is a powerful tool for marketers. One of the biggest competitive advantages of online platforms is their ability to match consumers with products and services in seconds. We’ve heard this over and over again as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified before Congress this week.
But what is actually happening to your data when you use a web application, social media platform, or the “pipes” of internet service providers (ISPs) for internet access? Is someone protecting your privacy, or are your data being exploited? As these questions have come to dominate the national discourse, it’s important to remember that on internet privacy, the devil is in the details.
Search engines and platforms collect information about user preferences to suggest related products and services, but this goes beyond their “likes” and what the user is searching for online. Increasingly, these search engine and platform companies are combining online use information with physical location data and information about behavioral patterns to create a truly powerful and enticing package for marketers and advertisers.
Location data and information about user preferences come from the surveillance capabilities incorporated into mobile phones that users actually give companies permission to use. But as the confusion during the Facebook hearing about the use of microphones as a data source illustrated, users may not be fully aware of what they’re agreeing to.
Google, Apple, and Facebook require users to give permission for access to device microphones, but users often accept the terms of service to allow their apps to work, ignoring the fine print. Instructions on how to opt out of microphone recordings or the use of geo-location data from a phone’s camera are buried in disclosures created by legal teams to comply with Federal Trade Commission guidelines, but they are deep in the pages that few take the time to read.
One illustration of the scope of location tracking capabilities is the November 2017 Quartz report that Android phones had “been collecting the addresses of nearby cellular towers — even when location services are disabled — and sending that data back to Google.” The company explained that this information helped improve message delivery and that the location data were immediately discarded. But “by the end of November, the company said, Android phones will no longer send cell-tower location data to Google, at least as part of this particular service, which consumers cannot disable.” While Google says it immediately discarded location information, this example shows how users’ locations can be triangulated using data from multiple cell towers, down to a quarter of a mile radius — information that could potentially be sold to advertisers.
Should there be a law to make the practices of advertisers and data brokers more transparent and give consumers greater control over the enormous amount of personal data they furnish to their favorite technology companies and by extension, to marketers?
Users should have more visibility into what information is gathered on them and how these data are collected. Currently, does every user opting into third-party agreements when they install new apps really understand what they just agreed to and the implications for their data?
After this week’s Facebook hearings, Congress will be ready to take action. With all of the revelations about how technology platforms work, how data on users are sold to third-parties, and the lack of protections for user privacy, the big question will be how these technology companies manage their data collections and sales going forward. It’s time for transparent transactions and clear requests for users’ information. It will be difficult for members of Congress to stand on the sidelines and hope for the best of intentions from the companies that have created the current culture of distrust for their users. Whatever happens, it will be important to achieve parity on privacy regulations. The whole internet ecosystem — websites, ISPs, and mobile apps — should be subject to the same rules. The digital economy needs trust as an anchor to function.
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