Large tech companies harvest data to profit, but many find their intentions dubious.
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Trevor wakes early Sunday morning and his phone tells him it will be sunny—the perfect day for fishing at his favorite spot. His aim is to catch enough to feed his family for a few meals, yet he will also be feeding something else in the process…
After loading up his car, Trevor remembers his wife asked him to order something online. He searches for the item she already added to their shared note-taking app before quickly making the online purchase.
The man enters his destination into an app on his phone. While driving, his GPS takes him a different route than normal to avoid traffic.
When Trevor arrives, he sets up his gear and casts out his line. While waiting for a bite, he scrolls through Facebook. A friend just posted a video of a cat riding a robot vacuum cleaner. Trevor has seen it before, but he still chuckles and taps the “Like” button.
The fishing venture ends when Trevor has enough fish for several meals. On the drive home, Trevor asks his phone to play fishing music. A song about a five-pound bass starts playing.
Trevor has fed his family, but he has also fed Big Tech. Without even realizing it, he created valuable data for these mammoth corporations just by using the services they provide.
“We all create valuable data points with every tap on a screen or keystroke—clicks, searches, likes, posts, purchases and more,” The New York Times reported. “We hand it over willingly for free services. But the biggest economic windfall goes to the tech giants like Google and Facebook. Their corporate wealth is built on harvesting and commercializing the information supplied by the online multitudes.”
“Imagine if General Motors did not pay for its steel, rubber or glass—its inputs,” Robert J. Shapiro, an economist who recently analyzed the value of data, told the newspaper. “That’s what it’s like for the big internet companies. It’s a sweet deal.”
Yet this extensive data gathering is feeding distrust in big technology companies.
According to a 2019 Amnesty International poll of nearly 10,000 people across nine countries, 7 out of 10 people “want governments to do more to regulate Big Tech, with a clear majority (71%) worried about how tech companies collect and use their personal data.”
Tanya O’Carroll, the director of Amnesty Tech, considered the poll results “stark and consistent” and summarized that “a clear majority of people are worried about the power Big Tech has over their lives.”
Almost a third of those polled were most afraid “their data could be used by state authorities to target them.”
For its part, Big Tech says it uses data gathered to improve lives. The fact that the “Big Five”—Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Microsoft—are large and influential attests to this.
Yet the question remains: How much should you trust Big Tech companies with your personal information?
In many ways, the data harvested by large technology companies bring benefits exclusive to those blessed to live in the 21st century.
Think. Never before could one person interact instantly with friends, family and colleagues around the world. One person can network with thousands—even millions—of people!
Email is the most used form of communication in the world. Approximately 306.4 billion emails were sent every single day in early 2020. That is almost 40 emails every day for each of the 7.8 billion people alive.
Entertainment once belonged to large production companies and their distribution channels. They largely decided when and how an audience could enjoy their visual media. Now you can open an app on your phone and listen to the entire catalog of your favorite musical artist. You can watch every movie in a long-running series right in your hand. Even eyewitness reports of news as it happens are available to you.
GPS systems aggregate many people’s location data, allowing it to inform users when the road ahead has traffic problems and to reroute them around the bottleneck. Real-time traffic data allows logistics companies to plan the most efficient routes and prevent unnecessary pollution from idling cars and trucks waiting for the road to clear.
Individual tracking systems give precise measurements for your last run. Some apps mean you never have to worry about remembering where you parked your car as you leave a sports stadium. Whatever food you are in the mood for, you can get a recommendation from people that you will never meet.
Advances in health, too, have been astounding. Artificial intelligence systems can find cancer in a mammogram long before a doctor would be able to recognize it. Google and Apple recently released a joint app to track illness exposure during the coronavirus pandemic.
Recommendation engines help you discover new music from artists that sound like other music you enjoy. These can tell you what book to read based on your reading history. A new “recommended video” queues up automatically, and it is usually not a disappointment.
All of these services require data.
As millions of people provide data through their interactions online—liking and sharing items on social media, making credit card purchases, even just Googling terms—tech companies can create more intelligent systems.
But these benefits come at a price.
“If you’re not paying for it, you are not the customer; you’re the product being sold.”
This comment on the Metafilter website by Andrew Lewis summarizes the way free services—and even some paid services—make money: advertising. Knowledge about consumers allows companies to target their ads to the people most likely to buy.
Just as fishers use bait to gather fish, tech companies use free apps and services to collect data. They then create demographic profiles. The profiles of listeners, viewers or readers helps arm advertisers with the information needed to best sell their products.
Charles Duhigg investigated how companies use data to personalize advertisements. In a 2012 New York Times article, he recounted a story about an angry father yelling at the manager of a local Target store for sending baby-themed ads to his teenage daughter. The manager knew nothing about the advertising but apologized for the ads. He called the man a few days later to apologize again. The father told him that his daughter was indeed already pregnant. The ads revealed something the teen wanted to keep secret.
Andrew Pole, a statistician from Target, admitted how questionable even legal use of this data could be. “We are very conservative about compliance with all privacy laws. But even if you’re following the law, you can do things where people get queasy.”
The use of personal data for advertising has Congress queasy too. Lawmakers going after Big Tech companies “want to force giants like Google, Facebook and Amazon to tell users what data they’re collecting from them and how much it’s worth,” The Associated Press reported.
“When a big tech company says its product is free, consumers are the ones being sold,” Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri said in a statement.
“These ‘free’ products track everything we do so tech companies can sell our information to the highest bidder and use it to target us with creepy ads. Even worse, tech companies do their best to hide how much consumer data is worth and to whom it is sold.”
The lawmakers’ proposed a bill that would require commercial services with more than 100 million active monthly users to disclose to their customers the types of data they collect. They would also have to provide their users with an assessment of the data’s value to them.
Tech companies use average revenue per user (ARPU) to show the worth of each customer by dividing the revenue over a given period by the number of users over the same period. In 2019, a single person was worth $25 to Facebook, $35 to The New York Times, $131 to Netflix (in the U.S.), $137 to Google, $194 to Apple, and $752 to Amazon! Sales of goods and services from Amazon, Apple and Netflix account for over half of their annual revenue, but the others primarily are selling your data.
Knowledge is power, and extensive knowledge is extensive power. If tech companies were entirely trustworthy and ethical, then there would be no concern. However, companies consist of people, and people make mistakes.
Sometimes those mistakes are people stealing information from their own or another company, and other times a small lapse in judgment simply exposes it. Either way can have tremendous consequences.
The Cambridge Analytica scandal is a perfect example of this. During the 2016 American presidential election, the company identified persuadable people whose vote might be changed to a specific candidate and then targeted them for digital marketing. They were able to do this by surreptitiously using a trove of data from Facebook. When the story came to light, Cambridge Analytica could not survive the scrutiny and eventually folded.
Most people have emotional reactions to “creepy ads” and online tracking—it feels too much like someone invading their private lives. How “creepy” this truly is can be debated. But the greater concern is the potential to change how someone thinks. As more and more data is analyzed about individuals and people similar to them, there may come a point that Big Tech knows a person better than he knows himself!
The world appears to be heading toward a society in which tech companies track, analyze and catalog everything. Science-fiction movies show a future of ads calling people by name as they walk by or unthinking machines and faceless corporations with near-complete control over people’s personal lives. In such dystopic visions, the companies are often seen as taking away people’s free will.
Of course, this is fiction, but the concern of data misuse is real. The 2015 Public Affairs Pulse survey from the Public Affairs Council found that only 10 percent of Americans trust major companies to behave ethically, while 46 percent did not have much or any trust in them. In addition, 42 percent of Americans said that CEOs have low ethical standards, while only 11 percent felt the same toward non-management employees.
And therein lies the problem. People do not trust companies that gather data mostly because they do not trust the people who run those companies. And, unlike machines, people can sometimes have malicious intent.
Of course, as with any big organization and those who run them, Big Tech companies are not perfect. They must walk a fine line between earning their customers’ money and earning their customers’ trust. Overtly eroding their trust would leave the companies with no consumers and therefore no income.
But putting trust in humans—especially ones in leadership positions—is a slippery slope when human nature is at play. The record of history increasingly shows human nature includes breaches of trust. (It is no wonder videos showing people performing good acts to “restore your faith in humanity” proliferate YouTube.)
At its worst, human nature can be deadly. At the same time, we need and rely on people—and the companies they run—to help us manage our lives. Currently, the self-preservation aspect of human nature forces Big Tech executives, managers and employees to behave at least ethically enough to ensure your data is not misused and remains as protected as possible. The obvious concern is whether their motives will always align with yours.
Ultimately, the choice is in each individual’s hands. To help you better understand and navigate the nature of people, read our booklet Did God Create Human Nature?
It is good to be informed about corporate ethics and potential data exposure, but there is little harm in enjoying at least some of what technology companies offer. You must decide for yourself the balance between concern and convenience.