Why are our personal data so important?
Many articles refer to the personal information as the new fuel of the modern economies. The value on the markets of some of these companies, whose business relies on the exploitation of personal data, demonstrate empirically this affirmation.
The detailed knowledge of the persons who use their services has allowed, many of these companies, to develop attractive products and services for both for the advertising companies and for the private users, which in general terms use these services for free in return of the right to exploit the information provided by the user itself to the company.
Another trend that is consolidating in the shape of new applications and services, are the virtual assistants whose aim is to provide what we need in every moment. We just need to ask using our mobile phones and the assistant will automatically provide what we need, custom tailored to our individual needs. This is only possible if those who give us these new services know us better than we do ourselves.
In addition, these assistants, whom we reach through the microphone of our mobile devices, need our microphone to be permanently open, and this is raising new challenges in terms of privacy.
How does the lack of privacy affect us?
There are dozens of studies that demonstrate that when someone knows that he might be being observed, his behaviour becomes more conformist and complaisant. Shame is a powerful motive and so is the desire to avoid it, and this is the reason why when we are being monitored, we take decisions that are not a product of our own natural impulse, but of the expectations that the others have put on us and of the principles and rules accepted by the society that surrounds us.
It is true that as humans we are social beings, which means that we need other people, knowing what they do, say or think, and it’s because of this need that we voluntarily publish information about ourselves on the Internet. However, it is also true that to have the feeling of freedom we need spaces away from the sight of other people. There is a fundamental reason for which we all look for this space, and it is a very simple reason: all of us, not only terrorists or criminals, all of us – have things to hide. There are things that we are willing to share with our doctor, attorney, wife or best friend but that will put us in serious trouble if they were public.
A society in which the people can be controlled at all times is a society that promotes conformity, obedience and submission. All totalitarian regimes share the will to control people’s privacy in order to exercise their power.
Not less important is the privacy needed for innovation and creativity which comes from spaces where we can think, reason, interact and speak without the judicious eyes of others on us. Spaces to explore and advance in ideas that go against the order and rules in progress. How many people along history have paid with their life for expressing a different point of view from what was established, only to be proven correct later on. Free societies must support a good balance for privacy to allow a bloom in innovation.
Another, just as important, aspect is the right to have a second opportunity in life, something that becomes limited if we cannot keep private certain pieces of information from our past that can have adverse effects in the present or future.
Does technology affect our privacy?
Technology is changing the paradigm of privacy mainly because of the amount of personal information that is generated and stored every day in an abstract entity that we have called the Internet. To have an idea of the dimension we just need observe this data:
- There are over 3.4 billion Internet users in the world, there are more mobile phones that people and every instant there are more than 1.5 million users active on Facebook.
Every day over 350 million photographs are uploaded to the Internet and over 205 trillion e-mails are sent.
Every minute 2.5 million searches are done, 20.8 million WhatsApp messages are sent, and 400.000 Tweets are written.
To this, it is necessary adding other realities that already exist such as wearable devices that register all our activity, even our vitals, the facial recognition that identifies anyone in a picture that has been uploaded on a social network, or the millions of devices sharing information that in many cases affect our privacy directly.
All this information is saved in different servers located in different countries, in many cases processed and the individuals able to access it are rarely known.
Where is the balance between pryvacy and data collection?
Finding balance is the key to a stable development since the majority of the services that we use are based on a relation of trust between the user and the company which provides them.
It is true that the citizen is the first one being charmed with all these new apps and free services that make life easier for them and that the companies whose business models are based on the exploitation of the users’ personal information are developing the tools to give the user a better control of his privacy. However, it is not less true that the centre of the current ecosystem is controlled by these companies that act like sharers of the gathered information.
The level of concern about privacy by the Internet users is low since, in general, they tend to trusts the ecosystem. The average citizen does not know who are those with access to their information, how it is gathered, how it is or can be used and has no clue of the value of his personal information.
Nevertheless, the users value their privacy and there is an increasing trend that starts asking where the limits are and if there are imbalances that should be corrected.
It is therefore everyone’s responsibility to sensitize society and its citizens to stop being passive agents that become active participants in managing their privacy.
For this to happen it is important to provide society with tools and a regulatory framework to enable them to know, among others who, how, and when their personal data is used, the price this data has and the value that it generates when we use different applications, as well as give them the option to easily manage and centralize their privacy.
Another way to empower the citizen is to allow them to have real access to their personal data regardless of who has collected it and this means access in open formats or standard interfaces, that convert closed silos (where our data is currently locked) into reusable resources managed by who the user decides and not by the applications that gather the information.
The change happens by putting people at the centre of the ecosystem, space which is now occupied by the companies that collect our data. A real and effective right to know the personal information they have of us and the right to share and have access to our personal information as we please.