Our data has value – the future of privacy

Written by on July 8, 2016 in Opinion with 0 Comments

AdobeStock_32354264We are angry. We want our privacy back. When Mark Zuckerberg said that we ‘now live our lives in public’ we chuckled and didn’t believe him. What he didn’t say was that he, and many others, would track our every movement, online.

It is our fault.

It is our fault because we were offered free content online. Except, there is no such thing as a free lunch (or content), and we paid for it with our data. And our data fuelled what is currently a myth, that we receive ‘targeted’ advertising in exchange for the run of a website. And somehow we were surprised that we were bombarded by adverts wherever we went. And they weren’t relevant. And we realised that our data was being used to sell advertising to companies and we didn’t like it. Actually what we realised was that our data has value, and so why weren’t we getting a cut?

What we are only just realising is just how much we are being tracked online.

Abhay Edlabadkar, the CEO of a company called Redmorph knows exactly. He can show you. He will select four random websites and then show you how many more sites got your data. In one case he visited four sites (plus Google, who record everything you do, so don’t need trackers) and demonstrated that another 208 sites got your data. The visits resulted in 357 cookies being used. Scarily, there were a fair few sites that tracked your movements on all of the randomly selected sites.

“The thing is that the tacit business model has changed”, says Edlabadkar, “in the old days, you would go down to the corner shop and buy some candy and a comic book or magazine. That was how it worked. When we went online, we realised that we were being offered free content. But, of course, it is not so free. Websites need to make money and advertising was the obvious way to do it”.

It is not just advertisers either. According to Edlabadkar, there are a bunch of data brokers out there, such as Oracle’s Bluekai, whose business it is to broker your data. Credit checker Experian is another, constantly updating its view of who you are and what you do. “Even employers are tracking you now”, says Edlabadkar. “They will track all your online activity, not just social media movements. They will see what apps you use, they will track your mouse movements and keystrokes.

The situation is even worse on your phone. Companies can get access to your contact books, they know where you are with GPS, and your mic will be on. They will know where you are going and where you have been.

Even WhatsApp, which is encrypted, can pick up the context of your chats, your contact book, your groups, the frequency of sessions and they know what you are sharing, by simply looking at the size and type of file that is being shared.

With Edlabadkar’s product you can turn off all tracking, ensuring your privacy, so that sites only share information with other sites that serve content. You can even make yourself invisible, and make Google Maps believe you live in Dublin when you actually live in Pittsburgh or New York.

We are rebelling in a number of ways.

Some of us are writing posts on Facebook, ‘absolutely forbidding Facebook to use my data in any way’. Sadly, of course, it is too late, and you agreed that they could when you signed up.

Some, well, some hundreds of millions of people are downloading ad blocking software. We can only assume that hundreds of millions more are actively thinking about it.

The fact of the matter is that, as Niall Norton of Openet explained not so long ago, that ‘going online is like getting a tattoo. In the beginning it seems a cool idea but when you get to our age, it is a foot wide, grey and does not look anything like it did when you first got it done”.

The other fact of the matter is that when we want to use an app we do not read the terms and conditions and click ‘agree’. What we do is accept the fact that the owner of the app can do whatever he likes with our data otherwise we cannot use the app.

You can sympathise with those who use ad blockers, even though they tend to have ‘white lists’ of advertisers who are ‘approved’ (who made them judge and jury over what you get to watch)? You can sympathise, also, with the publishers who produce the content, need to make money and have to make do with adverts that are ‘crap’. Which is one reason why there is a backlash.

The question is: what is going to happen? At the moment we are heading for a ‘no win’ situation. Some publishers are blocking people from their sites unless they turn their ad blockers off.

It is in danger of turning nasty.

The privacy issue will be solved. Many people will not bother with ad blockers, or tracker blockers such as Redmorph. Many will. Publishers will react in different ways. In Europe, regulation is changing in favour of privacy of individuals and ‘the right to be forgotten’. Sadly, in the US, the situation is less enlightened, as it emerges that Presidential Candidates who fall by the wayside sell lists of donors to those who remain in the race. Marco Rubio made over half a million dollars doing this.

The science behind the current myth of personalised and targeted adverts will also be resolved. Adverts might even be relevant and good again, one day, and work properly on all devices. And this might lead to a gradual swing in the other direction. Ad blockers might be a short term solution.

In the middle, though, is a third way, says Edlabadkar. “Your data has value, so why can’t customers be in charge of who uses it and has access to it? If you had a data broker you could choose which sites could use it. And you could choose whether you traded that value for adverts or for money. You could pay the broker a fee and he could distribute amongst the sites that you want access to, while keeping a commission”.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, now that customers know that their data has value there will be uncertainty and a lot of experimentation until things calms down.

Then, once we have control again, maybe we can get some peace and quiet.

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About the Author

About the Author: Alex was Founder and CEO of the Global Billing Association (GBA), a trade body focused on the communications sector. He is a sought after speaker and chairman at leading industry conferences, and is widely published in communications magazines around the world. Until it closed, he was Contributing Editor, OSS/BSS for Connected Planet. He is publisher of DisruptiveViews and previously BillingViews. .


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