Why Privacy Matters in a Data-Driven Economy

17 April 2016

One of the most impactful innovations of the last several years has been the rapid improvement in data technology. Today, hardware exists that can store once-unthinkable amounts of data, then make it accessible anywhere via the cloud. In turn, software has become more powerful, able to turn these billions of data points into actionable insights. Furthermore, tiny, connected devices can now collect data with extreme granularity from almost anywhere. As each one of these technologies improves, it makes room for its counterparts to grow, a phenomenon that has created the big data revolution we see today.

Already, this data has become a major economic driver. Large organizations use it to maximize the efficiency of their resources. Advertisers play billions of dollars for data that allows them to target demographics divided by factors as specific as sleep schedule or eating habits. And, because consumer data can deliver so much value to those companies prepared to use it, it has incentivized other companies to collect and sell as much information as possible.

Data: the new cost of doing business

“Free” browsing and messaging services cover their costs by cataloging and selling what their users search for, interact with and even discuss in their emails. Even devices we don’t typically think of as information collectors are starting to do just that. Most notably, “smart TVs” always have their microphones on so that they can hear and respond to voice commands. However, when they inevitably overhear their owners talking about something an advertiser may find useful, some go ahead and send this data on to the highest bidder.

For example, the SmartTV section of Samsung’s privacy policy includes the following statement: “Please be aware that if your spoken words include personal or other sensitive information, that information will be among the data captured and transmitted to a third party through your use of Voice Recognition.” While there is an option to opt out of this program, many SmartTV owners never realize they have opted in by default.

Every interaction we have with a Web-connected device creates a data point, and we are quickly learning we cannot control how data, even that regarding our own behavior, is used.

How safe is anonymized data?

Granted, this information is typically anonymized, meaning it is stored without certain identifying information, such as the associated consumer’s name, phone number or street address. There have been many attempts to prove it is impossible to truly de-identify data, but an equal number of defenders have rebutted, saying that sophisticated anonymization techniques can be successful.

While large companies that are invested in their customers’ privacy may adhere to these best practices, there is no way to ensure all companies keep up this level of sophistication, especially those, such as software or app developers, that primarily operate outside of Canada. In some cases, these organizations may simply remove the names and street address associated with the data, not realizing that a set of information can be reattached to an identity using only three bits of data: zip code, sex and date of birth.

Taking privacy into your own hands

What this explosion of data-mindedness, as well as the associated surge in privacy concerns, can teach us is the importance of controlling our personal information whenever possible. Although there are many situations in which we cannot control how our data is being used, there are instances in which we can take it into our own hands.

Next time you download a new app, consider the privacy policy before simply tapping “I accept the terms and conditions.” If it is lengthy and full of technical jargon, which they tend to be, try simply doing a Web search of the title of the app and the keyword “privacy policy.” You may be surprised what you find.

In other cases, it might behoove you not to include your full name or date of birth when creating a new account or requesting to download certain information. This way, no matter how responsible the other party may be with its data, you know your personally identifying information cannot be compromised.

Finally, you may want to consider signing up for a credit monitoring service like Identity Guard Canada. We can monitor your credit file, SSN and public records, looking for certain activity that may indicate fraud, We can also monitor to detect whether your personal information is being shared on numerous black market sites across the Web. If we find certain activity that may indicate you have become a victim of identity theft, we can notify you so that you can take the proper steps to further protect your identity. In an age when data reigns supreme, it can pay to protect yours.