When Data Harvesting Benefits Users… and When it Doesn't

Global information companies like Google and Facebook Amazon have achieved monopoly status. Society as a whole is unable to hold them to account. They control what you see and know. The vast amounts of data they collect gives them a new kind of power, and with that power comes big responsibilities.
Van Gogh painting
There are two sides to every story. On one hand the fact that big brands collect our behavioural data without permission, without explaining what they’re going to use it for, is sinister. On the other hand it can be a good thing: when our data is used to improve the overall user experience, we participate in the evolution of the tools we use.
The thing is, people are bound to get suspicious when monopolies like Facebook and Google harvest data without our permission, without a reason. If they actively sought our approval and revealed the particular benefits of harvesting it, more people might feel easier about their data being taken and used.
There is no regulation to prevent these giants doing bad stuff with our data, or stuff we don’t want them to do. The system relies on common sense and good will, a ridiculous situation in a personal context and equally inadvisable in a commercial one. Google promises to do no evil… but one man’s meat is another’s poison.

What data do users give away for free?

Instagram is riddled with advertising. You can’t escape the ads. It also hands over hashtags to its owner, Facebook, which they use to train machine learning systems to handle images.
Google’s algorithm has analysed billions of searches to pin down the clearest answers to user queries, which it surfaces at the top of the first search results page. As such they dictate how we find out about the world.
Facebook analyses the words we type and the things we click on to teach machine learning systems what you’re most likely to be interested in. Then it plops it into your news feed, mimicking human-like conversations. Many people find it intrusive.
Whatsapp has just announced it has started sharing users data – including phone numbers – with its owner, Facebook. They may have gone too far this time, with the news raising a flurry of complaints and many users backing away. Whatsapp’s justification is disingenuous, an exercise in weasel words: “We want to explore ways for you to communicate with the businesses that matter to you”. Yeah, right!

How data gathering can benefit users

Now and again, big data can directly benefit us as individuals. Take Instagram’s new algorithm, designed to predict depression from the photos people post on the network. It looks like depressed people tend to post blue, dimly-lit or monochrome images, and photos containing fewer faces than average. The algorithm has predicted depression accurately 70% of the time, a lot better than human doctors who average just 42%. The information could be used to identify and help individuals, perhaps via an app.
My bet would be that asking people permission to collect data on a regular basis – not just the once – and telling us the exact purpose each time, would make us all feel a lot better about big data than simply collecting it sneakily and not giving a clear reason why. After all, if there’s nothing to be ashamed off, why hide what you’re up to?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.