Marcel Samyn

Personal information: what is collected, how it is used and why you want to protect it

Jan. 28, 2017

The internet is beautiful because of its democratizing value: anyone has the possibility to create it and publish it for the whole world to see, immediately.

That publishing, however, is not free. Most of the stuff you see online is paid for by advertising. Advertisers want to influence you so that you buy certain products, vote for certain people or take some other action and publishers provide a place for them to do that.

Publishers want to make more money to fund their website(s) but they also know that placing more ads on a website will drive people away from their site (too much ads is just too much). So they need to make their advertising space more valuable. This is done by giving the advertisers more specific information about the people that will see their ads. In the case of Google and Facebook, for example, this also goes the other way around in that advertisers can choose which kinds of people should see which kinds of ads.

What do we mean by “kind of person”?

Remember that the goal of advertising is to influence your behavior, most often to convince you to buy a certain product. Thus, any information that can be used to modify an ad in a way that would make it more likely that you follow through, is useful.

Examples of this are your interests (e.g., I like cars), the things you’re doing (e.g., I’m currently renovating my house), your psychological profile (e.g., I’m concerned with my safety) and your environment (e.g., I live in a villa and have two kids).

How do they know which kind of person I am?

Companies like Facebook and Google collect as much data as possible about your behavior, the things they can observe you doing, to infer the kind of things an advertiser would like to know about you. For example, if you often search for “Ferrari”, there’s a good chance you’re interested in sports cars.

That’s a very straightforward example but a lot more information is used and processed, increasingly by machine learning algorithms that try to find these relations between your behavior and your personality (because it’s really hard for humans to process this huge pile of information). Here are a couple of examples:

For tracking along the internet, they convince website owners to add small pieces of software in order to be able to continue tracking on web sites (and apps) they don’t control. For example, when a Facebook Like-button is present on a website, Facebook can continue tracking. When a website owner uses the free Google Analytics to get information about the people that visit his or her site, that information is used by Google as well.

That was the kind of information that’s being collected by these companies themselves. They also buy information from so-called data brokers, companies that specialize in collecting all kinds of personal information and selling it. This means your web browsing behavior can be combined with the things you bought yesterday at the grocery store (collected via loyalty cards) or what kind of education you got and where you went to school.

Why could this be a problem?

First of all, you have no control at all over the content of this data. With all the information these companies have about you, they effectively create a “virtual you” to predict your thoughts and behaviors. Currently there is no way for you to check, verify and correct this data. They do not ask you whether there’s anything you consider personal and would like to keep private.

Second, you have no control over who can access this data. Data brokers freely buy and sell personal information without your consent (in the terms of service, you agreed that it’s their data).

Your insurance company, for example, might get a hold of this information and decide you won’t be able to pay insurance because people who like big booty bitches have 20% less chance of paying their invoice on time.

Even if a company decides to not sell your data, they might be compelled by a government to hand it over (as we’ve seen happen multiple times). More often than not, these governments are as secretive about what they do with this data as companies but they can exert a lot more power over you with it.

Why should I care?

You need to be able to make a choice . You should have the ability to say “okay, this is something I’d like to keep for myself right now.” Even if you want everyone to see everything you do, you should give others the freedom to make their own choice.

They might be wrong. What if the police arrests you because a black person living alone in an apartment in between two white people living alone, has a 32% bigger chance of committing a crime, even though you’re the nicest person on the planet?

You have something to hide. Why do you have curtains in your bathroom? Why do you wear clothes? Why do you wait until that woman left the room before you start gossiping about her?

Saying “I don’t care about privacy because I have nothing to hide” is like saying “I don’t care about freedom of speech because I have nothing to say.” - Edward Snowden People important to society have something to hide. In a democracy, laws change. But in order to change the law, you first have to break the law. If no gay people would ever want to marry, nobody would want a law that allows gay people to marry. If no women would have stood up to fight for their rights to vote, well, they wouldn’t be voting today. To a certain extent, allowing people to break the law is necessary in a democracy. This doesn’t work if everything you do is being tracked, collected and analyzed.

You might not trust the next person taking responsibility of your personal information. The next leader or the next CEO might decide to use your personal information for purposes completely different from what you deem acceptable. You need to have control now so that you can use it later.