Despite knowing there are various ways in which companies can track our information, do we really know what they are doing with it?

While Facebook and other companies may claim to protect your privacy, they aren’t going to need the personal information you provide to determine exactly who you are and what you’ll do next.

There are several things that companies can track – our purchase history, location, cell phone habits, even what we say. But the question remains: should we be concerned?

The first thing to understand is that privacy and data are two different things.

Privacy vs Data

Privacy — your name, your number, and your online credentials — is the unit of measure we best understand and most actively protect. When that is violated, it’s understandable to be upset, just as you would if someone was snooping outside your bedroom window.

However, your data – the abstract picture of who you are compared to other people – becomes your real vulnerability when it comes to companies that make money by offering ostensibly free services to millions of people.

This isn’t because it will compromise your personal identity, but because it will compromise your personal autonomy.

The moment we step into the daylight, we’re already being watched, tracked, and monetised by big and small companies that use our data for their own gain.

In a world where everything we do is recorded and shared, our privacy should be protected… but it isn’t always that way.

It’s important to remember that companies aren’t using your data for your convenience. They want more money, and your data is their currency. 

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A Victim Of Your Own Data

Founder of the Center for Humane Technology, Aza Raskin, said,

“Privacy as we know it doesn’t matter. What these companies are doing is building little models, little avatars, little voodoo dolls of you.

Your doll sits in the cloud, and they’ll throw 100,000 videos at it to see what’s effective to get you to stick around, or what ad with what messaging is uniquely good at getting you to do something.”

After creating the infinite scroll – the now-ubiquitous design standard that keeps your feed scrolling forever – Raskin did the math on how much time people were wasting because of it.

200,000 human lifetimes are wasted by infinite scrolling EVERY DAY, he stated. “That’s why I chose a new life.” 

Using all of your data and running endless simulations, companies can predict your interests and intentions before you are even aware of them. As Raskin says, “You are super predictable for these platforms, and it’s all about persuasion and prediction, not privacy.”

Currently, data harvesting is most useful for targeted advertising. Even without adding your name or address to your data profile, a company can still compare you to others who behave similarly online — clicking on things, liking things — and provide the most targeted ads.

Data can predict not only what shirt you will buy, but also which topics are so emotionally charged that you cannot ignore them – and what propaganda will work best on you.

This is why platforms that collect data at scale are so powerful for influencing people. Perhaps not you. Perhaps not today. However, there is enough influence, at scale, over time, to make the outcomes both overwhelmingly consistent, yet individually invisible.

While your data, and its predictive power, are extremely valuable to the companies that collect it, they have only the tiniest measurable value for you.

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Are There Major Consequences?

According to Facebook, data is unimportant and worthless on an individual level. Although we cannot show the impact of data collection on our own lives, the value of your data together with everyone else’s is unimaginable.

As we have seen, data harvesting can be a sensitive and controversial topic even at the best of times, but when used honestly and for the betterment of society, it can be a powerful tool for creating positive change.

Hundreds of cases show that data can be used in an unethical manner, but recent history shows that it can also be used ethically and for the good.

One example would be Apple and Google collaborating on contact tracing during the Corona virus outbreak. The tracking enabled organisations and people to identify potential outbreaks and hotspots of Coronavirus and plan accordingly.

Whether it’s good or bad, data harvesting won’t be going away anytime soon. If you don’t want your data to be harvested, you can turn off or avoid devices that are designed to harvest information about you, even though it is extremely difficult.

Turn off your microphone and camera, avoid smart TVs and choose other modes of transport if you don’t want to be tracked by rideshare apps.

In the end, it’s all about how your specific data is being used and how it affects you. Check it out… is it good or bad?


Vusi Thembekwayo