The End of Privacy?

The End of Privacy?



Data privacy was one of the hot debates of 2018. In this progressively interconnected world, data is the new oil. It is your biggest asset and can also be the greatest liability, if not handled properly.

A visibly uncomfortable Mark Zuckerberg grappling with a barrage of questions during his 12-hour Congressional hearing following the Cambridge Analytica data breach scandal would surely go down as one of the most eventful moments of recent times.

Data privacy was one of the hot debates of 2018. The most talked about exposé on personal data leaks were the Cambridge Analytica scandal that rocked Facebook, and Google’s 24×7 location tracking.

Smartphones with GPS chips in every hand, connected vehicles and miniaturized sensors, have turned the whole world into a digital network. In this progressively interconnected world, data is the new oil. It is your biggest asset and can also be the greatest liability, if not handled properly. No wonder a majority of 1,500 professionals who participated in Geospatial World Readers’ Survey agree to this (See Graph1).

Location has become fundamental to business processes and a collaboration of location analytics and business intelligence is the key to growth. Marketers around the world know the power of this data to identify audiences, gain competitive insights and observe offline consumer behavior (See Graph 2).

There is no discussion around how businesses are extensively using location data, which is also considered “personal data”. The moot question, however is, are companies taking adequate steps to protect this data. Shouldn’t consumers be given greater leeway to monitor how, when and where their personal data is being used?

Privacy – Is it an emotional issue?

Given this background and the backlash that Facebook, Google and other such companies have been facing in recent times, one can easily assume that majority of the common masses do not want to share data. However, that’s not completely true. The way the common masses view the issue of data privacy is quite intriguing.

On the one hand people are appreciative of more and more apps collecting crowdsourced data to make their features more advanced and appealing, thus opening up more opportunities (See Graph 3), on the other hand, a data breach like the Facebook or Google scandal upsets them.

A recent study by US Center for Data Innovation released in January found that 58% of Americans are “willing to share their most sensitive personal data” (i.e. biometric, medical and / or location data) in return for services or benefits that they want.

While the survey found that 70% of Americans would not allow a mobile app to collect their biometric data without tradeoffs, that dropped by 6.7 percentage points if it was to make it easier to sign-in to their accounts, and by 19.6 percentage points if it would make their account more secure.

Even a study conducted by Accenture in 2018 had arrived at the same conclusion. The study found that consumers only get wary if the brands don’t deliver desired results. It also revealed that the most invasive approach is using consumer location to offer personalized deals.

The Geospatial World Readers’ Survey also shows that a vast majority of respondents (67%) think that location tracking is a boon (See Graph 4, page 36) rather than a bane. But when asked if they were okay with being tracked 24×7 (See Graph 5), they were split (47% said yes, 43% no, while 10% weren’t sure).

What they were clear about was transparency regarding handling of this data — a whopping majority (87%) thought they had the right to know when they were being tracked and what companies were doing with that data. (See Graph 6)

An apt example is of Google. An investigation by Associated Press in 2018 found that the search engine giant was tracking users 24×7 even when their “Location History” was turned off. Google accepted it, but the clarification came three days after the AP report. The company revised a detailed description on its website enumerating how “Location History” setting works and clarified that it continues to track users even if they have disabled the setting. It also acknowledged that some location data might have been saved as part of the users’ activity on other services like search and maps. But again, this disclaimer came only after immense media hype. Till date there has been no clarification as to what Google does with such data.

Google has also recently been pulled up by the US Senate Commerce Committee. The Senate has sent a letter to the company seeking answers about a microphone that was undisclosed till January this year. Interestingly, the search engine giant didn’t discover this recently. It was aware when the Nest Secure was shipped. After the launch of Google Assistant integration, questions were raised. The company didn’t apprise the users that a microphone might record their conversations. US Senate Commerce Committee is investigating whether Google was actually aware and in case it was, what steps were taken by it.

It’s not just Google, many popular apps are misusing user data for profits. For example, iPhone apps share user data with third-party data monetization companies, making millions of iPhone users vulnerable. Every time you open Firefox on your smartphone, it asks if it has the permission to record videos or phone calls. While installing any new app, users are asked if they are okay with the said app accessing their personal information, including location. But it is nowhere mentioned that the app might share data with consumer brands, retailers or third-party service providers, which, more often than not, is the case.

The Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal is the biggest case in point. Facebook provided British political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica with data of its users. The firm then harvested personalized data of a staggering 40 million Americans and extrapolated it to match with other user profiles. The information was then used to target them with news and campaigns suited to their psychology.

The key question is, why transparency and clarity can’t be a virtue and shouldn’t users be informed as to what is being done with their data? This is that grey area where most companies shy away from answering straight questions concerning data misuse.

Cybersecurity — How safe is your data?

While digital innovation is paving the way for greater connectivity and services, it is also increasing data vulnerability (See Graph 7, page 37). For instance, in 2017, cybercriminals gained access to the servers of Equifax — one of the largest credit bureaus in the world — and stole personal data of 145 million people. The hacking was seen as one of most lethal security breaches of all time because of the sheer volume of information that was compromised, stolen and exposed. Equifax took two months to recover from the hack.

Hacking and spoofing lead to an estimated loss of $300 billion every year. And this is not all! Other than the financial loss, companies often lose confidential information and thus their image is dented or their quality of services is compromised. From hacking financial transactions to stealing classified information and creating a virtual profile, hackers manage to do it all despite cybersecurity measures and the abundance of anti-phishing and anti-virus, malware software.

It is estimated that by 2020, over 24 billion devices would be connected to the Internet. This makes it all the more risky if you come to imagine the consequences of security breach when all of our devices, smart homes, public transport systems, heavy machinery and autonomous cars, would be connected to the Internet. This would lead to something catastrophic and not just financial loss or identity theft.

Consider this: spoofing is a major risk as smart electricity meters that are used in Spain were hacked so that they would under-report energy consumption. A massive denial-of-service (DDOS) attack on Dyn’s servers took down many companies, including PayPal, Twitter and Spotify. This incident demonstrates that a lot needs to be done for protecting IoT devices. This brings us to the issue of preparedness of the technical workforce in case of a cyber attack. Unsurprisingly, the survey shows that a majority of professionals (41%) are unprepared to handle such a situation. (See Graph 8).

Take a look at the controversy over India’s Aadhaar system — a 12-digit unique identity number for all residents which contains their biometric and demographic data. While it is a great idea to link Aadhaar data with banks for social security benefits, in the recent past, it has garnered a lot of criticism due to the government’s inability to protect this data. After complaints of telecom companies using this data for their advantage surfaced, the matter was taken to the Supreme Court, which restricted the use of Aadhaar by private entities.

Surveillance — Is Big Brother watching?

Can the state spy on you at work or monitor private chats with your family? Data privacy is not just about chocolate advertisements on Facebook, but concerns a whole lot of other things. “The FBI/NSA knows everything” jokes may be old, but the Snowden revelations five years ago did make a thriving democracy like US appear suspicious. In countries like India, alleged social media monitoring by powers that be has continued to be an issue of debate for some time now, while in countries like China or Russia (not to take into account the repressive Middle East nations), this is not even a matter of debate — surveillance is a given thing there.

The problem varies from country to country and societal setups there. For instance, the world’s only smart nation, Singapore, diligently collects citizen data and extrapolates new information every day to build on further citizen-centric services. Such a setup would be unthinkable in the US, or even in India.

In June 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union, along with Amazon shareholders, launched a campaign urging the company to get out of surveillance business. The issue was Amazon’s Rekognition service that uses facial recognition to identify people, which the tech giant sells to governments. Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Apple and everyone else has been time and again accused of handing over data to the US government.

Data privacy is a complex issue and increasing digitalization of the world and interconnectivity is making things more intricate. In this background, data privacy legislations need to be an ongoing balancing act, with security interests on one side and the interest of the people on the other.

Data legislation — Is that the answer?

It seems the companies are yet to understand the gravity of the issue. So, it is not surprising that business leaders find data privacy to be least important in their strategic priorities list, reflects a survey in which 200+ CEOs and business leaders took part, conducted by Geospatial World (See Graph 9).

The complicated scenario has seen lawmakers sitting up to take matters in their own hands. While the European Union implemented the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in April 2018, California in the US passed a similar regulation in June, which is likely to come into effect by the end of 2019. There are talks of strict data privacy norms in India.

GDPR requires enterprises to protect the personal data and privacy of EU citizens for transactions that occur within EU member states. It also looks into the exportation of personal data outside the EU. According to GDPR, location data is considered as “personal data” in Article 4 (1). Under this clause, personal data is granted extended rights, including the right to access and the right to erasure. Under the right to access, users can obtain confirmation about whether data concerning them is being processed, where and for what purpose. The right to erasure can put an expiration date on the data already collected. GDPR consequently describes requirements for data processing companies and organizations. Processors are required to offer explicit and transparent notification about their data practices. The regulation emphasizes on the importance of consent.

Not surprisingly, one of the most prominent victims of GDPR is yet again Google. France’s data authority, CNIL, has announced a fine of €50 million (around $56.8 million) for the search engine giant. The authority said the amount of the fine was “justified by the severity of the infringements observed regarding the essential principles” of the GDPR.
Intriguingly, there seems to be little public support for such laws. In the US, there is an ongoing debate and mixed sentiment around regulation. The Geospatial World Readers’ Survey finds that a vast majority of respondents were not confident that a GDPR-like regulation can really solve privacy issues. While 40% said they were “not sure”, 32% were clear that it was not a solution (See Graph 10).

Data, especially, location data, is extremely personal and valuable. Considering its complexities, it is difficult to foresee as to in how many ways location data can be used or misused. Hence, this issue needs to be researched and there is a dire need to educate people about privacy rights as well as data science. Organizations can use GDPR as a guideline to evaluate their data practices and to ensure that their external communication gives users all the information they need to provide consent.

Technology can play a major role in managing data productively. With the vast amount of data that is coming in, it is quite impossible for humans to be able to sort and reconstitute a lot of that data. This is where technologies like AI and data analytics can play a vital role.

As for the concerns around ethical issues like social, economic or racial prejudices creeping into AI, well, that’s another debate!