Social media apps have become such an indispensable part of our lives that at times it’s difficult to evaluate their role critically. Presented to us as tools for ‘connecting’, ‘getting more social’ and ‘improving efficiency’, they track and sell our personal information. Have you ever wondered how ‘free’ to access digital platforms such as Google, Twitter and Facebook earn their revenues without manufacturing or selling a single product? As the adage goes, if you are not paying for it, you are the product being sold.
Consider any popular app on your phone, what drives it is the activity and content generated by you, the user. Every click, share or like of yours is a data point, which is collected by digital platforms and sold on further to other firms. While there might be short-term gains for users in terms of making new connections, or building an online reputation, tangible long-term gains for a large majority of users are not clear. Moreover, there seem to be a clear trade-off between access to these ‘free’ networks and our privacy.
User data is the holy grail, which helps marketers profile people and target them with relevant advertisements and products. Companies such as Facebook have access to very personal user data and they use machine learning algorithms to predict and profile users so that they can make their products more relevant. As users, it’s difficult to imagine what tracking would be like as most of this is not in our face. A few months ago, I attended an exhibition in London called ‘The Glass Room’ that aimed at making visitors reflect about their use of technology. One of the exhibits asked visitors to browse the Facebook app on their phones for two minutes while the installed camera monitored them. It made me very uncomfortable to see that the app was trying to predict my age, behaviour, mood and even the level of attention.
The larger issue with this detailed level of tracking is that data brokerage firms buy such data, aggregate it with more information and sold on further to companies such as those in the insurance sector that might use this information to offer different pricing for customers. Increasingly, governments are also becoming active in using online user data for surveillance and monitoring purposes under the rhetoric of good governance. In 2014, the Chinese government announced its plans to implement a social credit score by 2020 that monitor one’s social behaviour and interactions to assess their trustworthiness as citizens. This score could affect one’s job prospects, access to mortgage, schools other public services and such. Implementation of Aadhar in India and its linkage with back and tax accounts has also been criticised for its scope for citizens’ surveillance. In the UK, a leading health insurance company is offering rewards to its users who accept to install health tracking app on their phone.
It’s time for companies to be more accountable and transparent about the way they use our data. As users, we need to acknowledge that social media platforms are run by profit driven companies that possibly prioritise revenue over user privacy. Is the trade-off worth it? Sharing what and how much is enough? Would you rather pay for an app where you know your data would be protected? It’s time to start considering these questions.