Security Christmas

The data you give

A 6 minute read written by
Julie Hill Roa
10.12.2020

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He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when your awake, he knows if you ‘we been bad or good so be good for goodness sake. This is a line of a popular Christmas song. It obviously refers to Santa Claus. However… What if this is true, not only for Santa, but for large companies worldwide. We’ll take a closer look on the data you give and the repercussions.

In today’s modern world, our phones are an integral part of our lives. We carry it everywhere, whether it is at work, when we are out and about or in the hospital. In every situation, our phone is nearby. The phone gives us easy access to information, communication and you might say there is an app for everything. If you need to see the local weather, it is right there in your phone, the same goes for the directions to the cinema or if you want to know what your friends are up to – check your phone. And it is all free of charge. Well, not exactly, nothing is free.

The payment

Although you might not spend any money on an app, the app still collect a form of payment from you. Your information is the currency and it is collected through every action you make on the internet and in the apps on your phone. Your device information, your likes and dislikes and your email is just some of the data they might collect. And the hottest commodity is your location data. You might say the phone is a tracking device you wear 24/7.

Some of this data, we give willingly. This can be photos, statuses, interests and in some cases, who your friends are, where you live and so on. It is easy to believe that the information you give to a specific app will be contained within the app. This is often not the case. Selling consumer data is a multi-billion-dollar industry and your data is sold for targeted marketing, to analytics companies and to research.

You might not know what you do online every day, but the 50 apps you have on your phone does and what you do says a lot about you.

I have nothing to hide

You might not know why you should care about the fact that your data is collected, you have nothing to hide. A couple of emails with “special offers” in terms of marketing might not be the worst thing. But here is why you should care.

There are no restrictions on who can by this data and more parties are showing interest. In fact, earlier this year the Wall Street Journal found that the U.S government bought commercially available location data and used if for detecting undocumented immigrants or others trying to get across the U.S border. It also played a part in discovering a drug smuggling tunnel beneath the border between USA and Mexico in an abandoned KFC restaurant.

The police usually must acquire warrants to get this kind of information on your phone, but what if they can just buy it commercially? When is it ok to use these data and when is it surveillance? Like the comparisons the cryptographer Bruce Sneider draws: If the government said: “Whenever you make a new friend, you must inform the police”. We would laugh, but we willingly tell Facebook and Facebook informs the government. Or if the government says: ”Whenever you send a message or write a letter or send a note to somebody, send us a copy, please”. That would never happen, we would not do that. However, Google does it for you.

Throughout your days of using your phone or computer, you give pieces of information to each application or website, and although this data is supposed to be anonymous, it is not hard to connect the missing pieces. When seeing all the data from different sources together and by adding simple searches on specific information, your name and identity will be found and the data will no longer be anonymous. This was illustrated when The New York Times bought commercially sold location data. With this data they could easily find the person to whom the data belonged. Even though the name of the woman they were tracking, was not among the bought information, they deduced a lot about her. They could see that she was at a weight watchers meeting, doing a procedure at the dermatologist and by the amount of time she was spending at a school, she was most likely a teacher. The phone tracked her every two seconds and giving information about her she found disturbing.

NRK, a TV-channel in Norway did the same. By analysing the person’s patterns, they could see where he spent his days and where he spent his nights. By this information alone one can easily find out who lives at the address he slept at and who works at the address he was during the day, to find the name of the person using the phone. They even found that the person was going to interviews with another company, which he had not told anyone. And some time after these interviews he change his place of work.

All your data collected is a foundation for through analysis of you as a person. They can put you in boxes and make assumptions about you. Sometimes they are right, and sometimes they are not. If you are classified as likely to become a gambler, could it get in the way of you getting a loan in the future? Or could marketing pray on your weaknesses to get you to buy something you don’t need? You can easily be manipulated by companies gaining in-depth knowledge about you. This was proven by “Folkeopplysningen”, a show in Norway that informs the public about different topics. In one episode they manipulate an intelligent man to give up his company, his life’s work, purely based off of information found on him online. By his likes on Facebook, they could perform a personality test. By the pictures on Instagram they could see that he liked to work out, that he loved superheroes and all kind of other information. They staged a day for him to be considered for a super hero-part in a Hollywood production. All he had to do was give up his business. This is something he probably would never do if it wasn't for being manipulated for an entire day based on the information the TV-show could find on his social media and other online accounts.

What about GDPR

If you live in Europe, you have probably heard of General Data Protection Regulation or GDPR. GDPR is a legal framework that sets guidelines for the collection and processing of personal information from people who live in the EU. It is there to give consumers of the internet more right as to what data is collected.

As a consumer, you notice it best by having to accept the use of cookies on the web or by giving permissions to the apps of which data they can have access to. However, the government can only do so much if consumers keep accepting the usage. The web or phone applications often make it hard not to accept by writing the terms incomprehensible or too long. In some cases, you must even go to completely different applications to turn it all the way off. As long as it is easier to accept, we will accept. It can also be difficult to investigate where the commercially sold data comes from because not all companies are located in Europe and in some cases the terms does not specify all the different ways your data can be spread.

Off the grid

By highlighting some downsides of sharing data, you might feel the need to stop sharing data all together, but it is important to state that data sharing is not all bad. First of all, getting commercials tailored for you can be a good thing as you can get offers based off of previous purchases and get more effective services. Another great thing about sharing your data is that it can benefit scientists. Research on cancer be done studying patient data, why we are the way we are can be explored by looking at data from Facebook and so on. Looking at large sets of data can give us a better understanding of the world today.

The thing to think about is that you do not have to share your data all the time and to every app or website. For instance, a flashlight app does not need permissions to track your location. There are ways of sharing less data by limiting the apps on your phone to only sharing location data when the app is used or turning it completely of when you are not active on your phone. 

When it is all said and done it is your data.

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