Lifting shadows for our data freedom

Why our data ecosystem is broken and how we can do better

Data Brokers: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)

I’m loving how the latest round up from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver feels very much like the syllabus of any tech + policy coursework. Earlier in April, he unpacked the shadowy underbelly of our tech ecosystem — “Data Brokers” — what they know about us, what they are doing with our personal information that we are often unaware of.

It’s a reminder of how our current data practices is built on the bedrock of surveilience capitalism. We leave digital data trails whenever we browse website, shop online, use location-based app. Data brokers operate in the shadows lurking to collect, aggregate, sell our personal data often without our explicit consent or knowledge. Meta (Facebook) and Google are undoubtedly the lynchpins of our modern data empire as they embedded cookies and tracking software across our online landscape to mine and harvest valuable audience profiles for advertisers to target.

Example of Shopify data share setting to be sent to Facebook (Source)

New developments within our financial systems further extends the reach of what can be surveiled. With the rise of data aggregators, companies like Plaid use technologies like APIs to enable sharing of customer bank and credit card transaction data between banks and third party services like Venmo, Robinhood, Coinbase etc. In 2020, Yoldee — a financial data broker — was investigated by the FTC for selling user transaction information without their knowledge or consent.

meAwrey, Dan, and Joshua Macey. “The Promise and Perils of Open Finance.” Available at SSRN 4045640 (2022).

“It’s not what we signed up for”

Our current data ecossytem is opaque and plagued with multiple actors with incenties that conflict with the incentives of the consumer. Period tracking apps are notoriously “leaky” — Flo, a popular period tracking app, got in trouble with the FTC for sharing users’ data with Facebook and Google. [Privacy advocates are now advising caution with usage of fertility and period tracking app with the overturning of Roe v Wade]

Even if without explicit incentives to “exploit” consumers, companies are taking advantage of the status quo — and the general lack of awareness — to collect from users who unwittingly provided data. Our expectations of privacy, our right to exercise our informed choice to share privileged-access data with service providers are increasingly eroded by lack of accountability and overwhelmed by the exponential expansion of data we generate as we rely on digital technologies in our eveyrday lives.

It is tempting to discount the need for privacy or to surrender to the ligitany of surveillance but I think it is important to realize that loss of privacy can have real life consequences.

We further exacerabate our risk of being exploited by malicious actors when our privacy is not guaranteed. Despite claims of “anonymization” when dealing with personally identifable information, the reality of “reidentify” or “deannonymizing” individuals within anonymized data remains possible when anonymization techniques are poorly applied. Latanya Sweeney, Professor of Computer Science at Harvard, found that it is possible to uniquely identify up to 87% of people in the US census data based on ZIP code, birth date and sex.

Imagining digital futures that reclaim value for all of us

All of use — citizens, corporations, governments — we can build towards a digital future that respects our individual freedom of choice and protects our right to consent freely, and our right to privacy. I look forward to how ambitious comprehensive new regulation like the American Data Privacy and Protection Act are being considered in Congress can have the potential to move the needle on legal protection for personal data.

With legal mandates to hold companies accountable, companires must do more to empower consumer and provide choices for consumers to support their autonomous decision making about their own data. We need better tools and technologies to reflect our values as digital citizens — tools built on privacy-by-design principles that allows explicit opt-in and tools that give consumers the power to decide who and for what purposes they want data to be shared.

Matt Prewitt, president of the RadicalxChange Foundation and an author of the Data Freedom Act, shares a vision of our data future that reimagines governance and ownership — what if instead of the big tech monopolies, data is governed by those of us who generate it? He imagines the role of data coliations as a way to empower and shift the bargaining positions in favor of creators and users. This future may already be here with these data startups that are experimenting with business models that recognizing individual rights to own and sell their data.

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Dora Heng

Recovering economist passionate about global development and being human in an age of technological disruption