“If you’re not paying for a product, then you are the product.” In the digital era where technology provides much easier access to information than before, questions can be answered with a simple Google search and click. On the other hand, free social media websites give users easier opportunities for communication and building connections with others all around the world. Despite the convenience, privacy comes at a cost of using free internet services. Behind the websites, corporations are using programs that track their users’ every move, from google searches to sensitive information such as credit card numbers which is advertised and sold to other companies. With that being said, we are the products that are being sold to several different companies. Often, we turn a blind eye when we interact with social media and do not realize the risks we put on ourselves when we input our personal information into the hands of these multi-million dollar corporations. While acquiring information on what a user is interested in or searches is not typically harmful, it is personal information that needs to be collected with caution and with the acknowledgment and consent from the individual. The monopoly that corporations have on their customers’ data needs to have certain restrictions for the sake of privacy, employee profiling, cybersecurity risks, and the dangers of being stalked and harassed.
Collecting data is an essential strategy for corporations to ensure customer satisfaction and revenue. Collecting starts the moment users sign up for an account and use their features. From there, companies track the content they like, follow, and share, and if they choose to purchase something from the website, they can save their credit card information and shipping address. Not only are social media websites are doing this, but devices like Google Home, the Apple iPhone, and FitBits also track data about their users through use facial and voice recognition, cloud backups, internet browsing history, and more. With this information, companies can determine the interests of their users and display the types of ads that cater to those interests, boosting customer satisfaction.
So what is the issue with this? The problem lies with what kind of data corporations are collecting from their customers which they are not aware of, and how they handle the information.. Policies such as the Fair Crediting Reporting Act of 1970 and the Privacy Act of 1974, which are, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, meant to protect the records of individuals and “prohibit unauthorized disclosures” of those records. However, despite these policies that are meant to mandate the use of data collecting, new computer technologies continue to be evasive and share sensitive information without the peoples’ acknowledgment or consent.
Whatever data is being inputted into the internet, multiple third-party software can collect that information about its users and put it out into the public. In an article written by Steven Melendez and Alex Pasternack, the authors claim that “By buying or licensing data or scraping public records, third-party data companies can assemble thousands of attributes each for billions of people” (2019).
People search websites and database marketing companies such as Whitepages, Spokeo, and Acxiom, publicly release records of individuals which reveal their full name, age, birthday, family members, and more. Moreso, there is “premium” content that includes more valuable documents such as a home address, phone number, and criminal records. Anyone can pay to have access to have the premium records, which can be potentially dangerous for the individual, as they are at risk of being doxxed, stalked, or harassed.
Jameson Lopp, a Bitcoin engineer, states that, “You don’t know who you might piss off, especially if you’re active on social media... It’s just not possible to fully comprehend the thought processes of everybody else out there who’s on the internet who might read or hear something you might say and then what they might do as a result,” (Torpey, 2019). Massive corporations putting their users’ data out to the public creates potential danger. A negative interaction on the internet could put someone at risk of being harassed or stalked. There is no way of telling what type of person from the other side of the screen is like. There is a probability that it could be a hacker who could spitefully compromise the other’s data and use it against them, over an interaction on social media. There have been many instances of stalking and harassing which resulted from the lack of internet privacy. Sarthak Grover and Roya Ensafi, Ph.D. students from Harvard University, also argue about the lack of security for private data. In their report, it writes that simple “user interactions” with today’s high-tech gadgets can “generate traffic signatures that reveal information” (Risen, 2016). However, the data encrypted in this technology is poorly secured and can easily be breached by hackers. Both Lopp, Grover, and Ensafi agree that corporations collecting their users’ private information and displaying it to the public without their discretion lure hackers to compromise the data and use it for malicious reasons.
Besides, there have been multiple data breaches that have occurred since 2010. The most notable of this decade was the Facebook data breach from 2018, where nearly 50 million users had their data acquired by hackers. Guy Rosen, who is the Vice President of Facebook’s Product Management, stated that “hackers tried to harvest people’s personal information, including name, sex, and hometown” (Isaac). Prior to the September breach, Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, was involved in a scandal in which the data of 87 million users were compromised by the Cambridge Analytica. The Cambridge Analytica defined by an article from The New York Times, is “a political data firm hired by President Trump’s 2016 election campaign” which examined the information of the 87 million people and spread misinformation about the 2016 election to influence voters and to further promote the Republican party (Granville). With the recent scandals that surround Facebook, there are a raise of concerns about cybersecurity and the overwhelming power that corporations have on consumer data and government elections.
Although Rosen claims that he was unable to locate “the extent of the hacker’s access to third-party accounts,” it has been found that the information of 87 million hacked accounts are being sold through a website called Dream Market, which can only be accessed through the dark web. According to an article by The Independent, “the value of the stolen data on the black market would be somewhere between $150m and $600m” (Cuthbertson). It can then be sold in bitcoin to criminals who use that information to their advantage by committing illegal activities from identity fraud to terrorist attacks. In general, the harvesting of data, especially data that is confidential, puts the company and its customers at risk. The lack of protection and cybersecurity could lead to a catastrophic snowball effect, ruining the lives of the individual and the company itself.
Data collecting is also a threat to people’s privacy rights and can result in the act of consumer and employee profiling. Employers scout the social media pages of potential employees to determine whether or not they would make a good fit for the company. However, according to a journal by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they found that the interests and likes that a person displays on social media affects the probability of being hired. In addition, Michal Kosinski, a data scientist and computational psychologist found that people’s likes 'can be used to automatically and accurately predict a range of highly sensitive personal attributes” (Tinker). Employers use this information to make certain assumptions about their potential employees, such as their personality traits, political standing, sexual orientation, habits, and so forth. For example, if employers were to see that the applicant is interested in anime or RPG games, then they can determine that the employer is shy or introverted. These conjectures, in turn, can either make or break their chances of employment.
The problem with predicting a customer’s capability of excelling in the workspace based on Facebook likes is that it is entirely based on shallow presumptions of the individual which does not accurately determine the person as a whole. Just because an employee partakes in casual video gaming does not always equate to laziness or introversion. This cheap, personality assessment is also built on stereotypes about groups of people who share common interests. Evaluating these people based on those interests can prevent them from future employment. Instead of stalking an applicant’s privacy through social media to evaluate their character, they should instead focus on their work ethics and skills that can be beneficial for their company. By focusing on that, this can limit the possibilities of employee profiling.
Despite the risk of private information being in the hands of hackers or employers costing your job over Facebook likes, detractors find that data collecting is beneficial for them. Manan Kakkar, a writer for ZDNet, expresses his argument against online privacy and how social media corporations, such as Facebook, can use their users’ data to cater to their interests. Kakkar states that, “Facebook collects user data to study user behavior then shares this data with advertisers who then show you with results that might be relevant and useful to you” (Kakkar, 2011). This, in turn, improves customer satisfaction and benefits both the users and Facebook. However, while Facebook or Instagram is providing users with advertisements that meet their interests, it comes with the cost of the consumer’s privacy. Users are being constantly being surveilled through the screen by software engineered by the companies and being recorded for every interaction on the internet. The American Civil Liberties Union, which advocates for privacy rights and consumer protection, stated, “innocent individuals have found themselves unable to board planes, barred from certain types of jobs, shut out of their bank accounts, and repeatedly questioned by authorities” (ACLU). Companies spread misinformation and target individuals based on vague information that they have collected from tracking them, even though they have legally done nothing wrong. In addition to this, an article by The Conversation says, “[corporate surveillance] have a limiting effect on personal freedom by eroding privacy and forcing people to self-censor – hiding details of their lives that, for example, potential employers may find and disapprove of” (2019). Surveillance restricts the freedom of individual in fears that they may be judged or disapproved of. Both the ACLU and Specht believe that the convenience of having free personalized content that suits the interests of the customer may be satisfying, but it comes at a cost of their privacy. Constant spying and tracking every movement of an individual can never be truly erased, and if it were to be seen by others, it could potentially sabotage their reputation.
In all, corporate data collection has been done for decades, and with new and advanced technology, it challenges the privacy rights of individuals. People tend to overlook the long-term impacts of entrusting their personal information to big corporations like Facebook who may lack the security measures of protecting such data. To prevent this, companies should limit the amount of data they collect on their consumers to evade database attacks that can lead to hackers mishandling private information. Moreover, limiting data harvesting can stop the information from being spread to the public and sold on the deep web for illicit uses. If sensitive data is required to proceed, then there needs to be a full acknowledgment of what specific data is being collected and how the company will use it, as well as an agreement from the consumer, who must have the right to completely withdraw if they are uncomfortable. If companies were more transparent about what data they are gathering, then this can limit the consequences. After all, consumers are not products, but they are human beings who are entitled the right of their privacy.