Whose data is it, anyway?

Earlier this millennium I was chatting with a friend when the subject of email hacking came up. I was thinking of a way to explain how easy it is to get someone’s details.

“What’s your email address?” I asked. And she told me.

“What’s your password?” I asked… and she told me.

Moral: your data is your responsibility.

Terms & conditions apply

We – by which I mostly mean most of you, and the people we know – still naively hand over all sorts of personal data on a regular basis to the big internet / social media companies, smaller outfits, restaurants and occasionally to people we know shouldn’t be asking but you were drunk and they asked nicely. Mostly we do this in the name of convenience, such as when we make a restaurant booking and want a confirmation email.

But be honest: how many of us have ever read the Terms and Conditions companies send us when we sign up? Remember the angst when someone finally did for Instagram?

No organisation, large or small, ever asks you for your personal data for purely altruistic reasons; they do it because you can be analysed, targeted, sold something new. Some of them do have server farms to pay for, after all.

Have a Nectar Card? Boots Advantage, M&S Sparks, all the rest? They’re all about knowing you and your habits. Wander in to Superdrug with a headache, leave with Paracetamol, a store card and another headache. Even Paperchase have one – they keep asking me for mine, and keep trying to get me to take out a new one when I tell them I’ve forgotten it.

Facebook tracks what you post on your Wall, on other people’s Walls, what you like, who you ignore. It then – without you asking – prioritises what you see. I see all the posts from one frequent poster (you know who you are) before I see anything from the infrequent ones – even though those are the people I’d want to hear from first, when you think about it.

And then it pushes adverts to you based on your shared likes, algorithmically-speaking. I say that because, when I used to be Friends with lots of cadets, I was targeted by ads for Kirklees Adoption Service. Wrong on both counts. Thanks to some friendly banter on a Group I was in, I suddenly got targeted by ads for Groups about Polyamory (it was something she practiced). I don’t know where to start on that one.

Giving it all away

I saw a Tweet the other day (now a Guardian article) where someone was surprised that all their phone calls had somehow been tracked by Facebook. That would be because they gave Facebook their mobile phone number.

Why would you do that? Would you give your number out to a random stranger on a night out? Although… said random stranger will probably do much less with it than Facebook ever would. So, don’t share your phone book contacts with social media and messaging sites.

Facebook isn’t as bad as the state-sanction information sharing that happens every day. It’s just that we trusted Facebook, and wanted it to help us reconnect with former friends – even after we realised that the reconnecting bit was a secondary function to Facebook’s aim of finding out as much about us as we were willing to share so that we could be commoditised.

The best way to screw Facebook over without losing the perceived benefits is to delete your account then start a new one, and share as little as possible on it with them. If everyone in the UK did that at the same time, then that would be a sociological experiment worthy of, I dunno, the University of Cambridge.

But ultimately, it’s your data and your responsibility. Share it wisely or not at all, because it will, inevitably, be one day misappropriated and misused.

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2 thoughts on “Whose data is it, anyway?

  1. Scott Brownlee says:

    This goes the the heart of what we think privacy is and means. I’d bet a sizeable lunch there’s a neat generational divide.

    Old folks think “it’s none of your business” is an acceptable thing to say to anyone being nosy. It is acceptable and was common precisely because everyone you knew was part of a small community where everybody knew everybody else and consequently everybody else’s business. In a world where folk lived and died within miles of where they were born, your life was laid pretty bare amoung friends and neighbours. No one in the next town knew you at all, but that didn’t really matter.

    For younger folk, used to a world of internet streaming from friends in places now popularised by package tours (you can take tours up Everest now, soon going into orbit will be a bucket list option) the boundaries are different. They see and claim kinship with peoples of different ethnicity from continents they’ve never been to, yet they probably don’t know the name of the little old lady next door.

    As well as being more open in general, the young see giving data in exchange for services as fair trade, it gives them what they want at no monetary cost. What’s not to like? None of us, least of all the young, thinks we’re gulable to marketing, so let them message away. In the same way we accept ( and ignore?) ads on TV, the cinema, buses, sportsmen, maybe the highly targeted, data driven marketing is just so much white noise we quickly learn to filter out.

    Of course, as a career long PR you could say I’m bound to think that, to believe the message needs to resonate to have impact, not merely be repeated over and over.

    p.s. wonderfully ironic I need to give my email in order to comment.

  2. Gary Taylor says:

    Good point… but more ironic if you could log in through Facebook to add a comment 🙂

    I – or WordPress – must find a better way of handling comments, or at least make the email address non-mandatory. Then again, it’s the easiest way to allow regular commenters to post without having to create an account, as your comments can be automatically approved.

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