Your personal data, anonymized or not, makes the bread and butter of today’s web giants who offer to place individualized and precisely targeted adverts in front of billions of smartphone and Internet users.
Once you’ve ticked your data away to access a service (agreeing to never-read terms of service), your data is passed on from one app to another, from one service to another (depending on whatever business agreement in place), then collated and analyzed to make sense of your overall behavior and preferences.
In some cases when the data does not necessarily make sense, it may just be collected for no other purpose than to future-proof a company’s offering with applications yet to come. There seem to never be enough data, whether for commercial or for spying purposes.
Big data analytics is so much engrained in Internet companies’ strategies that some would argue the Web would not work or would offer a less rich user experience if all this data was not given away by the users. In fact, it is always the argument put forward, “give us your data, we’ll offer you a better service.”
So will you get a better service in exchange of all this data?
It is interesting to note that in a class-action consolidated last year in San Francisco, Android users sued Google, claiming that the company had gained and allowed third parties to have unauthorized access to their mobile devices running on the Android operating system to collect personal data. Reportedly, the users said they were unaware of and did not knowingly consent to collection of the data, including home and workplace locations and current whereabouts.
Location tracking is an "opt-in" feature that users have to activate, Google defended but then the plaintiffs claimed that the company’s continuous records of location data exposed them to data overage charges and decreased battery life (somehow a poorer user experience). The final judgment has yet to come, but it is an interesting take on personal data.
The ongoing NSA scandal is somehow raising consumers’ awareness about privacy issues and what can be done with all the data they distribute freely with every web-connected and geo-located device.
Reclaiming control of personal data is not an easy task, but not sharing it so blindly is one step in the right direction.
In most cases, the data you generate could just run on the device you own and remain there for operation. Alternatively, one should be able to opt for an encrypted data vault where all personal data could be managed from a user’s perspective, creating virtual and administrative identities from a single access, then allowing different profiles to be seen by different web applications, as meta-data only (like some sort of RSS feed under their control). Personal data would not be so fragmented and would become more portable.