Why should I care who is tracking me online?

Why should I care if companies and organisations can collect information about me across the Internet? Let’s be clear, I’m not for a moment advocating a lack of control or transparency. I do think that it should be compulsory for anyone collecting my data to let me know what they are collecting and how they are going to use it. I think I should have control over what can be collected and how it is used and that there should be significant penalties for anyone who abuses the rules. It is also incumbent on data collectors to hold the information securely. If someone has my data and only uses it in a way that I have (explicitly) agreed to then all is good. If that someone is careless and lets someone else get hold of that data, then that someone else could use it for purposes that I wouldn’t like – such as identity theft.

The reason that I ask the question as to why I should care is that I’ve seen very little quality reasoned argument about the actual risks and issues. Most of what I’ve read simply points out what’s being collected and leaves it to an implicit assumption that this is bad. If anyone does take it a step further it’s usually to do with the fact that adverts follow me across websites and that some people find this spooky and unnerving. Get over it. Some people found tv spooky and unnerving when it was introduced. Same for radio and the telephone. I can’t speak for cave paintings, but I would be surprised to know that someone didn’t like it.

Many of you will be familiar with the quote from Arthur C Clarke, visionary and science fiction author… ‘Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic’. Most people don’t have much of a grasp of the technology used to track them online and so it borders on magic. Assumptions are made that because I see the same ad on two websites, that The Man therefore knows every detail of my life. More than once I’ve heard of people who are absolutely convinced that Facebook is listening to their conversations. They have been having a conversation about person x, then they look at their Facebook feed and there’s a recommendation to link up with person x. I have no inside track on Facebook, but I don’t think they are listening to conversations. They just have really sophisticated tracking and algorithms and sometimes there’s a coincidence that a recommendation happens just when you’ve been talking about someone. I think there are some serious ethical questions that Facebook have not addressed about how they have collected data, used it and shared it, and their lack of transparency, but I don’t think they are listening to us.

It’s a fact of life that some of what we take for granted as ‘free’ services online are paid for by advertising and by knowing who the users are of online services. That requires tracking data over time. Bear in mind that just because an ad follows you across websites doesn’t mean that anyone necessarily knows who you are – just that a system knows that user number ABC1234 has done certain things. In some circumstances it’s possible to tie that information to an actual person – such as when someone has registered on a site – but that linkage should also be subject to disclosure.

An example of the lack of intelligent informed debate came (sadly) in a recent episode of BBC TVs ‘Click’ which carried a segment on the information that browsers collect. It was entirely factually correct but made no mention at all of why any of it should be an issue with anyone, although that was the implication. I love it when my browser fills in forms for me. It makes my life a lot easier. If I found that the browser developer was using that information to sell to advertisers so I would see different ads, then I’d complain if they hadn’t told me but I’d otherwise shrug my shoulders. It makes my life easier and if I’m going to see ads, then I might as well see ads that are relevant to me.

We’ve heard a lot about Cambridge Analytica and how they and other organisations have used data for nefarious purposes, in particular influencing the Brexit vote and the Trump election. The degree to which these efforts were successful is not entirely apparent, but both votes were close and a small effect could have a big impact. Yet the practice of targeting political messages at select groups is nothing new – it was invented with politics, with people. You vary the message depending on who you’re talking to. The main problem with such efforts today is the lack of transparency of why I’m seeing a message, and the fact that many such messages are half-truths and lies. Again, not a new thing in politics. The Internet and Big Data are amplifying what was already there. Yes it’s a worry, and we could start with holding politicians to the same level of truthful accountability as advertising.

I worry about the bubble that’s being created around me. Google shows me results that it thinks I want to see. Spotify tells me about music that’s ‘like’ other music I listen to, or that other people ‘like me’ listen to. I worry that I’m going to be closed off from new experiences, from serendipitous discovery.

The collection of data per-se is not the problem. So please, let’s have a more informed debate and fewer alarmist articles about what browsers know about me. The important questions are whether there is consent, and how the information is being used. Usually there’s something in it for me. I’m happy to see ads for technology, but I’m not happy about political messages that are false – even if they accord with my prejudices. We have to care about the truth.

Here are my own rules for data collection and use. I’m referring here to ‘data’ about me.

  • Data should only be collected and retained subject to informed consent
  • The uses to which that data is put should be subject to informed consent
  • Data should be held securely
  • Data should only be shared subject to informed consent
  • Data policies should be easy to read and transparent. The key points should be summarised
  • Only authorised people should have access to data
  • Data should only be made available to government authorities based on a court order or similar legal footing
  • In the event of my unfortunate demise, my next of kin should have control of my data and access to it based on more rules I haven’t worked out yet