If 52% don’t understand data-sharing economy, is opt-in redundant?

Nieman Lab has unveiled the results of research suggesting more than half of adults do not realise Google is collecting and storing personal data through usage of its platforms.

The research itself is quite shocking and outlines a serious issue as we stride deeper into the digital economy. If the general population does not understand the basic principles behind the data-sharing economy, how are they possibly going to protect themselves against the nefarious intentions from the darker corners of the virtual world?

You also have to question whether there is any point in the internet players seeking consent if the user does not understand what he/she is signing up for.

According to the research, 52% of the survey respondents do not expect Google to collect data about a person’s activities when using its platforms, such as search engines or YouTube, while 57% do not believe Google is tracking their web activity in order to create more tailored advertisements.

While most working in the TMT industry would assume the business models of the Google and the other internet are common knowledge, the data here suggests otherwise.

66% also do not realise Google will have access to personal data when using non-Google apps, while 64% are unaware third-party information will be used to enhance the accuracy of adverts served on the Google platforms. Surprisingly, only 57% of the survey respondents realise Google will merge the data collected on each of its own platforms to create profiles of users.

Although this survey has been focused on Google, it would be fair to assume the same respondents do not appreciate this is how many newly emerging companies are fuelling their spreadsheets. The data-sharing economy is the very reason many of the services we enjoy today are free, though if users are not aware of how this segment functions, you have to question whether Google and the other internet giants are doing their jobs.

The ideas of opt-in and consent are critically important nowadays. New rules in the European Union, GDPR, set about significant changes to dictate how companies collect, store and use personal information collected by the service providers. These rules were supposed to enforce transparency and encourage the user to be in control of their personal information, though this research does not offer much encouragement.

If the research suggests more than half of adults do not understand how Google collects personal information or uses it to enhance its own advertising capabilities, what is the point of the opt-in process in the first place?

Reports like this suggest the opt-in process is largely meaningless as users do not understand what they are giving the likes of Google permission to do. The blame for this lack of education is split between the internet giants, who have become experts at muddying the waters, and the users themselves.

Those who use the services for free but do not question the continued existence of ‘free’ platforms should forgo the right to be annoyed when scandals emerge. Not taking the time to understand, or at least attempt to, the intricacies of the data-sharing economy is the reason many of these scandals emerge in the first place; users have been blindly handing power to the internet giants.

The internet players need to do more to educate the world on their business models, however the user does have to take some of the responsibility. We’re not suggesting everyone becomes an internet economy expert, but gaining a basic understanding is not incredibly difficult. However, it does seem ignorance is bliss.

Facebook back on the ropes with more privacy punches

Facebook faces fresh questions surrounding data privacy, with reports emerging it granted advertising customers access to user’s private messages with friends and family.

This is a company which is not helping itself but is looking increasingly suspect. The data and sharing economy does of course require users to make an exchange in order to receive free services, but the personalised advertising machine created by Facebook is starting to look scary. The detail which is known on users, and the apparent nonchalant approach the firm has to abuse of the platform, is starting to become very worrying.

Now we have one of the most worrying accusations. According to the New York Times, new documents have emerged suggesting Facebook granted permissions to advertisers which seemingly go far beyond the consent granted by users.

Among the accusations, sourced from internal documents, Netflix and Spotify were given the ability to read user’s private messages, while Bing was able to access all information about a user’s connections without specific consent. Amazon was given permission to obtain contact information through indirect connections, and Yahoo was allowed view streams of friends’ posts. The Yahoo partnership can be traced back to this summer, long after Facebook had declared such practises had been ended.

Aside from the NYT investigation, one user has also taken the time to pen her frustrations after realising location controls on the platform made no difference to personalised advertising. Aleksandra Korolova turned off all available location services on Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram, cleared location details off her profile, removed geo-tagging on photos, but was still receiving personalised ads based on recent movements.

“Reading Facebook’s explanations to advertisers provides insight into how this is done,” said Korolova in a Medium post. “Specifically, Facebook tells advertisers that it learns user locations from the IP address, WiFi and Bluetooth data.”

The illusion of control has been created, though Facebook is finding ways around user consent and loopholes to any commitments it has previously made.

The inability for Facebook to be transparent, clearly telling the user what is going on, is incredible. There are so many examples of this company misleading the general public, governments and regulators, they are becoming difficult to count. This is a toxic company which should not be trusted. We are struggling to believe any statement which the company is now making.

In response, Konstantinos Papamiltiadis, Director of Developer Platforms and Programs, has gone to Facebook’s standard response.

“…we recognize that we’ve needed tighter management over how partners and developers can access information using our APIs,” said Papamiltiadis. “We’re already in the process of reviewing all our APIs and the partners who can access them.”

This seems to be Facebook’s new response to accusations which question whether it has acted ethically or legally; partially accepting responsibility and saying they will do better in the future. This is not a good enough answer anymore. It might have worked the first couple of times, but the repetition from Facebook executives just shows how little the company thinks about the general public. We are just assets to be traded in the pursuit of greater advertising revenues.

Privacy is a small hurdle; the grey expanses of technology regulation are too wide for this to be a problem. Facebook is making a mockery of the general public and the data privacy landscape.