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The Digital Masquerade: Data Privacy and How to Protect Your Ten Pence Worth

03 May 2022 | Written by By Christopher Templeton


Wherever you sit on the subject of data privacy, I’m sure we can all agree that human life shouldn’t be reduced to simply data. 

And no, I’m not going to get entangled in a debate about whether Artificial Intelligence can create consciousness because what really matters today, is what we feel about our data privacy.

It’s likely the greatest, moral question of the digital era. 

The issue of data privacy was stratospheric in 2003, with whistle-blower Mark Klein’s brave revelations surrounding NRA spying apparatus installed at an AT&T office. All details of this highly secretive program remained hidden from the public, until Klein blew the lid.

So, what’s been happening in the world since 2003? 

Well, algorithms have become rampant across most applications. It’s a hungry beast and it seeks to bond with all the data it can get – which is my top point. 

Because it’s a good thing that there are people out there who hold fast to their privacy – resisting data’s immense appetites. If nothing else, withholding your data ensures the pre-eminence of the human viewpoint. 

And it has to be said, to be human is to retain our significance to each other. The yardstick that we measure between one person and another, lies in the privacy of our thoughts.

Because, when you retain your privacy with data, fast-advancing algorithms will carry seeds of doubt because they know their own fallibility, they must ultimately define themselves through the vector of not having complete access to all the relevant data that’s out there.

And here, you might accept my personal desire for a modicum of data privacy – as we witness so much of our lives being interpreted within data processing systems, whether we like it or not. 

Here’s the problem. 

As we take personal information and turn it into AI, the problem of dealing with bias is very real. If there’s a profit motive involved, and there always is, what you have to worry about is that the bias is going to be intentionally or accidentally reduced by the interest of that entity in behaving secretly for profit. 

For example, there are only two major vendors of smartphone operating systems, Apple and Google. Saying that you have individual privacy rights relative to how you use your smartphone is ridiculous – because, in reality, you don’t have a choice! You are already a data point in the frequency with which you use your mobile phone.

And by extension, there is a real possibility that as you enjoy your smartphone, there is information that is going to be used in ways that you didn’t intend. 

And that’s because – it’s a ‘winner takes all’ economy when it comes to data, all the big boys are going to compile the precious data, which will now exist in a quasi-monopolistic form. In other words, in a far-off land where individual privacy rights don’t exist. 

Many of us have wearables today and there’s a gold rush for its data to train medical algorithms. The implicit trade-off for being monitored 24 hours a day is this: You give me your user-generated data for free and I hand you better healthcare, because we can now claim to make medicines more efficacious using wearables. The reality of this is mixed, as you would expect. 

There are several scandals permeating around the healthcare sector in the US at the moment and they all involve data privacy. One immediately thinks about the Google and Ascension deal that was revealed through another brave whistle-blower.

Think of this another way. Are you not in fact the product here? You are after all being monetised! And that’s the point. Google becomes a multi-billion company. You are simply data fodder. 

So please don’t try to give the impression of equity and balance when it comes to your data collection, especially when it’s actually strapped to my body! 

  1. So, how do you begin to mask your privacy rights in the digital masquerade

Realistically, there is only one way and that is by promoting your right to associate as an individual with whatever parties, groups, service providers you want. It may be that you choose to share certain personal data but not all of it. In short, you should be offered the right to choose, at the point of purchase.

This is somewhat tricky to do because many of these activities are being carried out within ‘walled gardens’ – a far too flowery term to describe the insidious reality that corporations keep all your personal data to themselves, to do with what they will.  Google is a walled garden. So is Amazon. Facebook is close behind.

BBC Journalist Leo Kelion investigated this very point by submitting a subject access request, asking Amazon to disclose everything they knew about him. Scanning through the hundreds of files he received in response, he found the level of detail “…mind-bending.”

One database contained transcriptions of all 31,082 interactions his family had over the year with their virtual assistant ‘Alexa’.

My question then is this: how can you say that you’re protecting individual interests when you are storing so much information for your own corporate delectation?

Think about it in the narrowest sense. Let’s say Amazon is going through your Alexa records and maybe trying to figure out better ways to program its AI. How are they really processing that core data? 

Are they going to share the information? With whom? Are there businesses associated with Amazon’s operations? What are they going to do with that information?                                

Let’s be clear: to promote the rights of the individual you need to promote their right to associate or offer that personal information with whatever parties, groups, service providers they want. 

In other words, you need to give individuals as much leverage as possible. 

All I’m saying is this: it’s much harder to change a system once the boat has sailed – so let data privacy be a golden standard in cyber regulation. I’ll let you get away with spying on my spoken words as I walk the streets, but please leave my private thoughts and data to me. I need my own walled garden too.

What is an individual’s data worth? Ten pence? A pound? On your own, your data is not worth much at all. When it’s aggregated, however? Well, to Amazon it’s worth plenty. Many billions of dollars. 

Me? For the time being? I’d like to keep my ten pence worth of data to myself.

What do you think of Christopher’s reflections? Share your thoughts with him in the comments below. 

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