We take the digital economy for granted; every time we log into Facebook, purchase clothes from Amazon, or search up new recipes on Google. Yet, we often overlook the vast amounts of personal information that we reveal to companies through otherwise innocuous actions. The more you search on Google, from foods to holidays, the more Google knows about you. This knowledge is not just helpful for search engine optimization, but also extremely valuable. Just like oil for cars, technology companies consume personal data to power their services, from video recommendations to targeted advertisements.
But what exactly is personal data?
Health records, social security numbers, and banking details make up the most sensitive information stored online. Social media posts, location data, and search-engine queries may also be revealing but are also typically monetized in a way that, say, your credit card number is not. Other kinds of data collection fall into separate categories—ones that you may be unaware of. Did you know some companies are analyzing the unique way you tap and fumble with your smartphone?
Who Buys, Sells, and Barters My Personal Data?
The trade-off between the data you give and the services you get may or may not be worth it, but another breed of business amasses, analyzes, and sells your information without giving you anything at all: data brokers. These firms compile info from publicly available sources like property records, marriage licenses, and court cases. They may also gather your medical records, browsing history, social media connections, and online purchases. Depending on where you live, data brokers might even purchase your information from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
Personal data is also used by artificial intelligence researchers to train their automated programs. Every day, users around the globe upload billions of photos, videos, text posts, and audio clips to sites like YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. That media is then fed to machine learning algorithms, so they can learn to “see” what’s in a photograph or automatically determine whether a post violates Facebook’s hate-speech policy.
What does the future of data collection look like?
Personal information is currently collected primarily through screens, when people use computers and smartphones. The coming years will bring the widespread adoption of new data-guzzling devices, like smart speakers, censor-embedded clothing, and wearable health monitors. Even those who refrain from using these devices will likely have their data gathered, by things like facial recognition-enabled surveillance cameras installed on street corners. In many ways, this future has already begun: Taylor Swift fans have had their face data collected, and Amazon Echos are listening in on millions of homes.
One of the biggest concerns will be how data is analyzed. It matters not just what information is collected but also what inferences and predictions are made based upon it. Personal data is used by algorithms to make incredibly important decisions, like whether someone should maintain their health care benefits, or be released on bail. Those decisions can easily be biased, and researchers and companies like Google are now working to make algorithms more transparent and fair.
Before we can figure out the future of personal data collection, we need to learn more about its present. The cascade of privacy scandals that have come to light in recent years—from Cambridge Analytica to Google’s shady location tracking practices—have demonstrated that users still don’t know all the ways their information is being sold, traded, and shared. Until consumers actually understand the ecosystem they’ve unwittingly become a part of, we won’t be able to grapple with it in the first place.