Most people have a vague understanding that their data is being fed into automated systems that helps inform companies how to target us more effectively-- from financial services products, to home goods to membership offers. Firms across various industries are turning to machine learning and AI to record signals from customer behaviour, to craft more personalised digital experiences.
This type of “you-know-me” experience can be convenient when a site offers you the perfect product at the perfect moment, but can also be slightly concerning when you click “accept” without fully understanding that your cookies and data are travelling far beyond the page you’re browsing. Equally concerning is that the security of our entire personal, financial and digital lives could be at stake.
This debate has become even more real and important in the wake of COVID. Many people are working remotely with potentially sensitive information on their computers, and online retail sales have surged as customers share personal data online to purchase and ship products. As systems learn user preferences, the digital experience improves, which is good news considering we have a long way to go before in-person interactions get back to normal.
However, as technology advances, critics continue to question whether privacy and the artificial intelligence that powers personalization can coexist. Now that technologies, such as data collection, image recognition and 5G are advancing rapidly, it is critical that we have a better understanding of how and when to share data digitally.
As consumers become more aware of how organisations are utilising their data, privacy will become a commodity. We’ll be given a transparent choice on whether to withhold our information, or offer it to the most trustworthy bidder. AI will have consumers wielding their privacy as an asset like never before, and future infrastructure will need to support this.
The Revolution Is Coming
According to Statista, there were 45 million active social media users in the UK in 2019, which translates to around 67 percent of the country’s population. Social media platforms have essentially become shorthand for staying in touch. They are also a great example of the struggle between wanting control over personal data, but still wanting access to a social platform.
Complicated user agreements aren’t going to survive for much longer, as our offline and online personas become inseparable. We don’t need more legalese and life hacks; we need more transparency. We are on the brink of a privacy revolution, as we face the reckoning of what’s been a relatively fast and loose method of data collection. Once consumers gain more knowledge on the subject, they can make an educated decision about swapping privacy for convenience.
As the scales shift, consumers will soon have complete control over their data. They can say, “If you want to scan my photos to train your facial recognition system, I’ll forfeit the convenience of you recognising and tagging my Facebook photos to keep you from doing that.” Or, they will accept whatever monetary or other value exchange you’re offering instead.
As privacy laws become stricter and the demand for transparency grows, we can envision data exchange being attached to every service that we consume. This exchange would consist of every strand of personal information that is collected, and how it is being utilised. Users could be offered the choice of whether to opt out of certain information collection in exchange for an overall reduction in the service or monetary penalties. This will effectively create more value for our privacy, which can be exchanged and eventually normalised across applications.
People Should Be Asking: How Do I Protect What’s Mine and Still Get What I Want?
While Facebook and Google gain the lion’s share of animosity, what could actually pose a larger threat is when we perform smaller transfers of data. How many workout apps, astrology charts, or Instagram filters have we downloaded over the years? If people were able to visualise how their data is being channelled from the site they opted into, all the way to third party vendors, they would be horrified.
The line between convenience and creepy is a thin one. For example, when a brand I interact with regularly knows I like to buy a certain style of top, I don't mind it when the company recommends it back to me. On the other hand, if I haven't heard or reached out to a business in months, and they send me an email that makes me feel like they've been building a profile out of third party data and know my preferences, that's where it gets creepy.
A recent study from FobrukerRadet revealed just how far your data can go without your knowledge. For example, the dating app Grindr shared detailed user data that included IP address, advertising ID, GPS location, age, and gender with a significant number of third parties that were involved in advertising and profiling. Many of the third parties that were receiving this data are also in the business of collecting, using, and selling location data for various commercial purposes. As the majority of people fail to read the fine print before downloading, all this is often overlooked.
Where Does This Leave Companies?
If we briefly imagine a world full of people with only good intentions, we would be praising what this massive data collection has enabled: improvements in healthcare such as the ability to provide remote aid, projecting the likelihood and potential impact of catastrophic weather to adequately equip disaster teams, supporting at need groups in a pandemic, detecting unusual activities that could indicate credit card fraud, and more.
However, that’s not always the case. More data means better AI, which could compel companies and governments to acquire data without any regulations. Once organisations realised the incredible value of data, there was pressure to continue mining it in order to keep up with the competition. They might not know the kind of value this data might offer in the future, but they simply get it so that they’re ready when they figure out what to do with it.
The End Goal: Peace of Mind
The most important thing that is lacking in data collection is choice. A consumer can’t make an educated choice, without full transparency of where their data could travel to. People will likely continue to opt-in to sharing (or selling) their privacy to continue using a platform. The peace of mind that comes along with full transparency could even have people opting-in for sharing more information, if the trade-off proves to be great enough.
Data collection, privacy, and AI can absolutely coexist. But right now, we’re wading through muddy waters.