What You Give Away

“…You also agree that you will not use these products for any purposes prohibited by United States law, including, without limitation, the development, design, manufacture or production of nuclear, missiles, or chemical or biological weapons”.

Even though you have probably never actually read that statement, you have more than likely agreed to those terms on several occasions. That little gem comes right out of the Apple iTunes End User Licensed Agreement. You know – the thing that you usually just hit “Accept” or “I Agree” to without reading so you can get to using the application?

How about this one:

“To enhance your online experience, we use “cookies” or similar technologies. Cookies are text files placed in your computer’s browser to store your preferences. Cookies do not contain personally identifiable information; however, once you choose to furnish a site with personally identifiable information, this information may be linked to the data stored in the cookie”.

That came right out of the CNN Website Privacy Policy. Their policy goes on to say that “third party service providers” may also use these cookies to collection information and that “Visitors should consult the other sites’ privacy notices as we have no control over information that is submitted to, or collected by, these third parties”.

Oddly enough those terms are pretty standard for any website you go to. In fact, if you take a look at every privacy policy and terms of service agreement you have ever agreed to, tacitly or explicitly (Don’t try it. It would it’d take about 76 work days), you will find that you give away more information on a daily basis than you knew was being collected about you. For instance, when using Netflix, did you know they track whenever you rewind or pause a movie/show? Mobile service providers track things like what cell towers you connect to and how long your calls last. To top it off, they retain all of these data points later run massive analytics to profile who you are. Your mobile service provider likely knows more about your day to day habits than your closest friends.

A few years ago I decided to take all of the publicly available information on Foursquare in the Northern Virginia area for 4 months. I picked a random, seemingly anonymous user out of this mass of data and tracked the movements for those four months. End result – with this data and a little bit of social networking was able to determine the name of this pilot who was based out of IAD that decided it was a good idea to check in at every airport he flew to, and at the Burger King he liked to frequent between 6:15-6:18 am before arriving at work around 6:45 am when in Virginia.

The amount of information we as a society willingly give away is very scary. We provide everything someone would need to identify, track, profile, or rob us. This culture of sharing has largely been influenced by social media giants Facebook and Twitter, but there is a layer beyond that. We actually PAY corporations to take our data and turn around and do whatever they want with it (store it, analyze it, read it, listen to it, sell it). Your cell service providers, your television providers, even your energy providers have more data about you than you would imagine because you willingly give it away.

[Begin digression]

We willing give away data to private corporations who only want our data for a bottom line (improving services and selling data are all just ways to make more money), but we seem to have a major problem with our governments using the same data to protect us. At some point, we decided it was okay to entrust employees of private corporations with this data, but we kick and scream when our governments want to use the same data to protect us at home. Something about that seems off and I think it is time for society on a whole to start reevaluating what is important.

[End digression]

In the age of information, we freely give away data without thinking twice about it. Turns out this is also the age of “big data” and “data analysis” so profiling you and knowing more about you than you ever knew about yourself has become somewhat of a game. A very profitable game at that. So now that you know this, what is going to change? There will be no huge uprising to take back control of our data. There will not be national discussions about privacy and human rights violations. We will continue providing this data willingly, but knowing what is being collected and how it is being used gives us opportunities to forcibly change our own behaviors and limit the amount of data we allow to be collected on us. Food for thought.

This entry was posted in Age of Information, Analytics, big brother, Big Data, Data Analysis, Large Scale Systems, Politics, social networking. Bookmark the permalink.

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