Privacy in the Age of Data Aggregation

“The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data”, stated The Economist in 2017. It is no surprise then, that the 5 most valuable listed companies in the world are data giants — Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft and Facebook. [1] Large parts of this data belong to everyday users of the services offered by these companies. In 2017, Google raked in USD 95.38 billion in advertising revenues [2] and the corresponding figure for Facebook in the same year stood at USD 39.94 billion. [3]

While these tech giants grab the headlines, there is another group of lesser known companies exploiting the value of user data — the data brokers. In 2012, former US senator John D Rockefeller claimed that the data broker market generated USD 156 billion in revenues. [4] Data brokers generate value by aggregating disparate data sets to build detailed profiles about users. Personal data collected by data brokers include demographic, financial, social media, health, court & public record data among several other categories. [5]

The value of combining datasets to create user profiles is not an alien concept to the tech giants either. Recognising the limits of its own data sources, Facebook buys user data from a group of data brokers such as Acxiom, Datalogix (Oracle Data Cloud), Epsilon, Experian and Quantium among others. [6] Furthermore, 76% of websites contain Google trackers and 24% have Facebook trackers, expanding the reaches of their data collection abilities far beyond their own services. As a regular internet user, it is also nearly impossible to miss the Google and Facebook sign in options on a host of different websites and apps.

To make the concept of data aggregation even more lucid, consider the following example. Joanne is a fitness conscious 26-year-old who runs on a regular basis. She bought Adidas running shoes on Amazon 6 months ago. Her fitbit data indicates that she has run 800 km since this purchase. Her google geolocation data suggests that she walks past a Nike store on her everyday commute between work and home. This would serve as highly valuable data for Nike to issue a targeted ad to Joanne.

While this example is simple and rather narrow in scope, the value of aggregating data extends to much broader contexts. Consider the case of refugees entering a foreign country seeking asylum from conflict. One’s geolocation data could serve as a proof of origin from a recognised conflict region and social media data could serve to prove that the person enjoyed a normal social life, thereby providing the host country with data which could hasten the integration of the person into the country.

Thus, the value of placing the user at the center of datasets is quite apparent. However, aggregation of personal data by large corporations not only breaches the privacy of individuals but also deprives them of the opportunity to benefit from the value of the data they generate. VALID seeks to challenge this status quo by empowering users to take control over their own personal data.

Enabled by the EU General Data Protection Regulation due to take effect in May 2018, EU residents will now be able to request corporations to provide their personal data in a machine-readable form. This would make it possible for users to securely store personal data from diverse data sources on their VALID wallet and monetize it (if they wish to) on the VALID marketplace. The VALID wallet will be designed so as to provide users total control over the attributes that they wish to share, thus making it possible to derive monetary value from their data without compromising on their privacy.

But the tech giants still have my data. What are my options?

While VALID marks a step towards greater control over personal data in the digital age, it is not a panacea. However, coupled with VALID a user may take the following steps to further bolster privacy in the digital realm:

1. Usage of Tracker Blockers: As stated earlier in the blogpost, data driven businesses like Google and Facebook use trackers on several websites to gather data about users. In order to escape this, users may use browser extensions or add-ons which prevent their browsing activity from being tracked.

2. Turn off Data Sharing with Advertisers: The privacy settings on several online services give users the option of stopping their personal data from being shared with advertisers. While this means that the particular providers still have access to your data, it stops your data from making its way into the hands of unknown advertisers who may have weaker security standards to protect sensitive data.

3. Explore Privacy-Friendly Browsers and Search Engines: The growing awareness around privacy has given birth to a number of browsers and search engines which refrain from tracking browsing activity. While this offers users more privacy than their traditional counterparts, it is worth noting that websites would still be free to send cookies to your browser, making it possible for the website to keep track of past visits and activity.



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