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Why Big Tech’s Data Collection Should Concern You

What’s this about?

A story in Fortune highlights that some of the world’s largest tech companies are involved in legal fights worldwide to keep user data private.

The concern: A group of tech companies led by AppleGoogle, and Facebook issued a letter to the Australian government asking it to rethink a recent law passed that will make it easier for law enforcement to force tech companies to hand over user data. This is one of many legal cases worldwide that these companies, which collect massive amounts of data on all of us, are involved in. The legislative landscape is heating up over how much access to user information government officials should have. Meanwhile, many people have no idea how much data these companies are collecting on us.

Why should I care about what big tech is doing with my data?

  1. The average person has little or no idea what personal or sensitive data tech giants like Google and Facebook are collecting.
  2. How this data can be used – and who can have access to it – is unknown and can have negative consequences that are yet to be seen.

These are some of the potential ways privacy advocates say our data could be used against us:

  • Laws could pave the way to a mandatory “backdoor” into devices that could give governments easy access to user information. These backdoors create an additional access point that can be exploited by hackers and criminals. This is currently being pushed by the U.S Attorney General.
  • Your web searches, location history, and countless other kinds of data could be used against you in a lawsuit and in court.
  • The online prices of items you purchase may be adjusted depending on what big tech knows about your income. You could pay more than your neighbor for certain good and services. 
  • Governments could create social profiles on citizens. China is already using data to create a social score for citizens that in some cases, prohibit them from traveling or doing other activities.

What are big tech companies collecting for data? 

Facebook

The Washington Post lists 98 data points that Facebook collects about each of its users for ad targeting. But it goes beyond that. Ever received a friend suggestion on Facebook and wondered how the network knows that there’s any connection in your life to that person? That’s because in addition to your connections and interests, Facebook’s “shadow profile” practice reaches beyond our use on the site. Many users are unaware of how much the social network knows about users’ lives and connections OUTSIDE of Facebook because shadow-profile connections happen inside an algorithmic black box. 

Facebook has also been caught mining users’ data without their consent, uploading contact information from users, and listening to voice recordings between Messenger users.

Facebook is not clear on how it works, but privacy advocates caution that the data mining Facebook is doing is too deep and far too overreaching.

Google

If you have location tracking turned on, Google continuously tracks your location from your devices. Google also stores search history across all your devices so even if you delete your search history and phone history on one device, it may still have data saved from other devices. 

Google has also provided law enforcement with data tied to location history for investigative purposes.

Google creates advertisement profiles, based on your data and information, such as your location, gender, age, hobbies, career, interests, relationship status, possible weight and income. 

It knows all the apps you use, how often you use them, where you use them, and who you’re interacting with on those apps. Google stores all of your YouTube history, so they probably know whether you’re going to be a parent soon, if you’re a conservative, if you’re a progressive, if you’re Jewish, Christian, or Muslim, if you’re feeling depressed or suicidal, if you’re suffering from anorexia (these are just examples).

Apple

On its website, Apple notes that it collects less data about us than the other big tech companies and the data it does collect is scrambled it so the data isn’t identifiable . Additionally, it says it keeps most of the data, encrypted, on our devices, as opposed to Apple servers, so it’s only accessible via your passcode. 

But while Apple claims to have a different view and approach to privacy, our Apple devices still collect a lot of information from services such as the GPS, Siri, and the iCloud account . Apple says it doesn’t share that info with outside companies. It does, however, allow advertisers to target users based on their history in the App Store and News app. 

The company does admit that it freely collects information about what music we listen to, what movies, books and apps we download, which is “aggregated” and used to help Apple make recommendations. Apple says it doesn’t share this information with outside companies and notes that the collected information is anonymized.

The Takeaways

The data these big tech giants collect is deep, massive, and we’re in the dark as to how much info is collected and how it is (or will be) used. The access to this information law enforcement and government officials want is still undetermined and has the potential to cause harm to individuals.

Our recommendations

While we don’t know whether the big tech companies will eventually agree to the demands of the government and regulators, it’s good practice to limit the data these companies are collecting.

Make sure you’re aware of what settings you have turned on that could give your information away. This could be location settings, personalization settings and even advertising settings that explicitly tell you what information is being shared with advertisers. If you take a first step and limit this collection, it’s a good start towards better privacy.

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