Does your data matter to you?

We ask whether or not it matters that our data is being collected, bought and utilized by tech companies.

Tech and the online world
By VoiceBox ·


Charlie is a young person concerned about the growing market of data

Do you mind your mind being mined?

Are we really in control of our thoughts online?

...or is our data just output for those who want to profit?

When I was younger, my dad always told me not to do anything on the internet that I wouldn’t be happy with the whole world knowing. At the time I thought he was either incredibly paranoid or had been looking at the search history on my laptop. As it turns out, neither was the case. Or at least I hope…

Everything we do online is tracked and compiled into personal data points by the websites we visit, building up an online profile of our likes and dislikes, our fears and desires.

Big tech companies make billions off of this information by analysing and selling the use of it to organisations ranging from your local café or hairdressers to the UK government. There isn’t an industry that doesn’t use it.

It’s so large a sector that data is now more valuable than oil and, in a sense, it’s the same process. Rather than mining natural resources, however, these companies are mining people’s lives, their deepest secrets, those guilty searches you’re too embarrassed to ask anyone – even tracking your location. And not only are they not paying you for it, but they use that information to keep you glued to your devices so they can harvest more data from you and make even more money.

The General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, attempted to rein in some of this. First proposed back in 2012, it finally became law in May 2018 – shortly after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke.

Under GDPR, websites have to inform you of their use of cookies and give you the option to opt out. However, to opt out you usually have to go through a number of pages and click the right buttons (often cleverly disguised) before you reach a page where you can say you don’t want to be tracked – and after all that, there are still websites that that won’t let you see anything without cookies enabled.

The Cambridge Analytica case – which eventually led to a £500,000 fine for Facebook – made it look like governments were serious about bringing down big data. But it was all a facade – Cambridge Analytica wasn’t the only company doing this: it was just one of an almost inexhaustible list compiling and analysing user data.

“Rather than mining natural resources, these companies are mining people’s lives, their deepest secrets, those guilty searches you’re too embarrassed to ask anyone” – Charlie

Whenever data is brought up, the go-to line is always “I’ve got nothing to hide” – and sure, most of us don’t. But it’s not about personally hiding anything: most of the information is encrypted and anonymised anyway. Really, it’s about what that information can be used for and who can use it.

Companies use your data to provide you with exactly the right content to keep you scrolling, glued to your phone, popping up ads that they know will make you buy a product, then bringing you straight back to your newsfeed. The whole layout of social media is designed to get you addicted – it develops the same pathways in your brain as drugs, and uses your data to improve its efficiency in doing so. Have you ever unlocked your phone without thinking and then immediately found yourself mid-scroll on Instagram? Or closed an app only to look back at your screen and immediately open it again? These companies charge a premium to sell ad space they know will hit exactly who the client wants, when they want.

What’s terrifying is that some companies don’t care who they sell the use of this data to, as long as they make money from it. Some would just as happily promote white supremacists as they would an eco-clothing company, as long as they’re paying.

The power of access to this data can be used to change the way people think – and the political and financial decisions they make. It can manipulate them into supporting things that they wouldn’t have supported without careful targeting and newsfeed curation.

Our personalities, our private and social lives, are being compiled and compressed into points of data solely with the aim of monetising us and gluing us to our devices. What’s more, this information can also be used to manipulate the world we see and the way we think. There’s a reason many of the employees of the Silicon Valley tech giants send their children to schools where technology is forbidden: we’re being pulled into an unhealthy, exploitative relationship with the online.

This level of control over what we see and the constant curation of our virtual lives forces the question: do we have any agency in our beliefs and opinions any more, or are we at the whim of algorithms designed to optimise profits and get more clicks – and the people with enough money to power them?

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