Corporations are gathering large amounts of data on us: data about our actions, our interests, what we search for and read, and how we interact with others. Of concern is the idea that interpretations of our right to digital privacy are in the hands of the corporations and government organizations that own the data, leaving us little control over our own digital data points.

Have you ever heard of a data broker? This term refers to companies that gather information on consumers through a variety of channels and then sell that information to corporations. The corporations use the data to build consumer profiles. They then use those profiles to market to those consumers in a targeted, personalized way.

According to Brian Naylor’s article on the NPR website, data brokerage is not anything new, “but the Internet upped the ante considerably” (2016).

Naylor explains how it works:

Once these companies collect the information, the data brokers package and sell it—sometimes to other brokers, sometimes to businesses — that then use the information to target ads to consumers. And it’s a lucrative industry. One of the largest brokers, Acxiom, reported over $800 million in revenue last year” (2016).

This raises concerns around the right to privacy. We do have that right, right?

The Fourth Amendment reads:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized (National Constitution Center, 2017).

Unfortunately, the Founding Fathers did not anticipate digital media or the Internet, so the Fourth Amendment does not include anything about large corporations selling, buying, storing, or mining your data.

The American Civil Liberties Union expresses its concerns about the privacy of our data on its website:

Technological innovation has outpaced our privacy protections. As a result, our digital footprint can be tracked by the government and corporations in ways that were once unthinkable. This digital footprint is constantly growing, containing more and more data about the most intimate aspects of our lives. This includes our communications, whereabouts, online searches, purchases, and even our bodies. When the government has easy access to this information, we lose more than just privacy and control over our information. Free speech, security, and equality suffer as well (2017)

To compound this concern, we are freely sharing intimate information on websites and applications owned by large corporations. That information is being archived, mined, and sold. Based on data gathered, corporations can use machine learning to understand and make assumptions about who we are and what actions we are likely to take.

Curious about my own data floating around on the Internet, I spent 30 minutes googling myself. I found information on my age, design style, address, career and education history, cities I’ve lived in, homes I’ve owned, things I am interested in, projects I’ve worked on, awards I’ve won, court records, and my relationship and marital history. Click on the items in the chart below to see what my search revealed. 

This search did not take into account the mounds of search and activity data about me that corporations have stored but not made public. If you are interested Google will share an archive of your data from the Google apps you use. You can delete those accounts and clear your browser history, but I was unable to find a statement indicating that if you delete your account or clear your history that data will be erased from Google’s files (Google Support, 2017).

In the book The Internet of Us, Michael Patrick Lynch notes, “In some cases—many cases in fact—we trade information in situations where trust has already been established to some degree.” For instance, if you have an affinity for a particular brand you may be more comfortable completing an online form and giving over your personal information than if you had never heard of the company (2016). Can we assume that humans who give their data up freely trust the organizations to which they are giving that data?

We may well be trusting blind. We have little visibility into what data is being stored on us and even less visibility into how those data are being mined and harvested. Even if we did know what data these corporations have, most likely we still would not know what assumptions the corporate algorithms are making about us.

Alas, in an article on Backchannel.com, David Weinberger explains how machine learning works and how little we can hope to understand:

Clearly our computers have surpassed us in their power to discriminate, find patterns, and draw conclusions. That’s one reason we use them. Rather than reducing phenomena to fit a relatively simple model, we can now let our computers make models as big as they need to. But this also seems to mean that what we know depends upon the output of machines the functioning of which we cannot follow, explain, or understand (2016).

Next Read: How Does Trust Work?

References: 

ACLU. (2017). Privacy & Technology. Retrieved from https://www.aclu.org/issues/privacy-technology

Google Support. (2017). Retrieved from https://support.google.com/accounts/answer/3024190?hl=en

Lynch, M., P. (2016). The Internet of Us: Knowing More and Understanding Less in the Age of Big Data. Liverlight Publishing Company. New York.

National Constitution Center. Amendment iv. Retrieved from https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendments/amendment-iv

Naylor, B. (July 11, 2016). Firms Are Buying, Sharing Your Online Info. What Can You Do About It? NPR. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/07/11/485571291/firms-are-buying-sharing-your-online-info-what-can-you-do-about-it

Weinberger, D. (April 18, 2016). Alien Knowledge: When Machines Justify Knowledge. Backchannel. Retrieved from https://backchannel.com/our-machines-now-have-knowledge-well-never-understand-857a479dcc0e