The Transaction You Are Really Making
Picture this. You are on your way to meet a few friends in New York City and your phone is almost out of power. You stumble across a kiosk in Bryant Park that offers free WiFi and a charging port; you plug in and connect for a few minutes, fill out a survey, agree to a lengthy terms and conditions agreement, and then unplug and continue with your day. While you may feel anonymous while doing all this, the company that owns that kiosk just sold your eyeballs (page views) for about $24 (Linchpin); you may have also put yourself at risk of being hacked by using public WiFi and a public USB port.
We expose data about ourselves constantly, whether from a free public WiFi network, social media activity, Google searches, online purchases, or going to the store. Some of the largest and most profitable companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Target use our data to tailor their advertising and product offers based on our preferences. Many companies argue that this data collection will improve the user experience through personalization. Additionally, many consumers rely on free WiFi in public areas like parks, airports, and coffee shops. While using free products and personalized services that are based on your preferences are enticing, these solutions come with a cost.
At What Cost?
In New York City, there are currently 1,795 LinkNYC kiosks that offer “free WiFi” — but it is not necessarily ‘free,’ the kiosk sensors and cameras track the movements of everyone in their vicinity. Once you connect, the network will record your location every time you come within 150 feet of a kiosk. While this information is “anonymized,” the system still records a unique identifier for each device that connects (NY Times). Such data can be used to track people’s movements and infer intimate details of their lives, all in order to maximize ad revenue.
Whenever you visit or make a purchase on a website, you are being tracked; every click provides a new data point or fingerprint for that company’s digital profile of you. Why would companies do this you may ask? Data is becoming a key asset in and of itself. By building a data warehouse and understanding their users, companies can personalize their ads, make more targeted product offers, and even sell the data, all to increase earnings. Many users are not aware of these practices since so few even skim the terms and conditions presented when you sign up for a free service like social media, email, or public WiFi.
The Growing Concern
Some major data issues in the recent past have involved Facebook, Google, and Tik Tok. Back in 2018, Facebook experienced a breach exposing over 50 million users’ personal information (NY Times). Moreover, in June of this year, Google faced a $5 billion lawsuit for “pervasively tracking internet use even when browsers were set in ‘private’ mode” (Reuters). This was surprising since Google accused other companies of tracking users. The Chinese-based company ByteDance (owner of Tik Tok) has also faced significant backlash since its launch:
Jackson, from Disconnect, said the app sends an ‘abnormal’ amount of information from devices to its computers. When he opened TikTok, he found approximately 210 network requests in the first nine seconds, totaling over 500 kilobytes of data sent from the app to the Internet… Much of it was information about the phone that could be used to “fingerprint” your device even when you’re not logged in. (Washington Post)
ByteDance has faced pressure from the U.S. government to hand over partial ownership to a US-based corporation so data from U.S. citizens could not be used to profile users. Ironically, many US-based corporations leverage much of the same data from consumers (profile, age range, general location, topics of interest based on likes and page views, follows, etc.). Global retailers like Walmart, Target, and Amazon also track site utilization, purchases, credit card use, age, and preferences (especially if they join a loyalty program).
Companies are continually looking for ways to “fingerprint” their users. Users are often given a score that ranks how valuable their data would be to use or to sell. Companies track what users look at online (and for how long), what they respond to, and what they buy. They can also make inferences based on actions, device fingerprints, and location. “At least a third of the 500 sites Americans visit most often use hidden code to run an identity check on your computer or phone” (Washington Post). Your fingerprint is then assigned a price based on your score and is primarily used for marketing purposes.
Luckily, consumers have recently become more and more cognizant of data privacy and the possible exploitations. Movies like Snowden and Social Dilemma have helped educate the public on how governments and companies can use a person’s data. Global regulation is also increasing as seen with laws like GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act). Companies that do not comply will be fined. This awareness has resulted in companies focusing on “privacy by design” to build trust with their users and differentiate from other firms. Such companies make it easy for consumers to manage and monitor their data. Gartner predicts that companies that earn and maintain digital trust with consumers will see 30% more digital commerce profits than competitors (Gartner). It has been found that privacy tech is a growing category for investment. Apple, for example, is privacy-focused, unlike Facebook and Google, and does not use data to sell advertising (they sell hardware and software). They also utilize end-to-end encryption on iMessage, which provides privacy but can frustrate law enforcement.
As consumers become more educated, they will be able to understand the tradeoffs between using free services like public WiFi, charging ports, and social media versus services that may cost more but better protect their data. Apple is positioning itself as a privacy-centric company in contrast to firms like Facebook and Google that offer free services that leverage user data for themselves and their marketing partners. This battle for privacy versus free services will not end anytime soon. By understanding potential pitfalls like these, we can better create applications that ensure our privacy and protection but still meet our needs. Next time you sign up for a free service and a terms and conditions agreement pops up, hopefully, you understand the weight clicking ‘accept’ carries. The price of admission is a revenue source for others: your data.