Data Sharing: The Pandora’s Box of the Digital Era

Sam Hannah

May 18, 2023

Data is ubiquitous. It’s provided us with wonderful things; from storing passwords and other important information we always forget, to keeping you logged in and your basket full when shopping online and switching between tabs and windows. However, there is, as there always is with unregulated markets, a more sinister, profiteering manner in which our data is used on a daily basis.

This is a mysterious topic which isn’t often confronted, aside from the odd bit of half-baked legislation from bodies like the EU, the reasons for which I’m quite unsure. Is it a case of widespread lackadaisicalness? Is it due to being scared to see what’s beneath the surface? In any case, there is no overstating how integral data is to the modern world. It is the oil of today’s economy — it fuels the biggest and most powerful corporations as the latter did in years past — and given the amount of it we share regularly, we really ought to know how it’s used.

In order to delve deeper into this, we first must understand the types of data which are shared and stored online. Our health records, national insurance numbers, and banking details are all stored online, but these are not shared at all — luckily, the flimsy legal framework currently in place prevents this — but the information that is collated and monetised includes social media posts, location data (if in use), and search-engine queries, to name but a few. There are other kinds of data which fall into separate categories of course; one of the more frightening ones I found was that there are companies in existence which analyse the unique way you tap and fumble with your smartphone (eek!). However, we will largely focus on the most common data types that we share constantly without really considering the consequences.

Indeed, the sharing of the information detailed above leads to harmless, and often useful, additions to life online. Cookies, the most widely recognised of these, are used by almost every website out there to personalise adverts, to keep your log-in details saved, and even to keep your shopping basket full whilst browsing, as mentioned before. Everything from social media, to dating apps, to the news apps we use require access to our data in order for us to get the full experience. We take this all for granted because they’re convenient and we don’t mind allowing some of our information out in order to gain that reward.

However, we must be careful of this ease with which we surrender our personal details. Even a small thing like sending a vial of saliva off to a genealogy company can involve unwittingly sharing your data. The information gained from the analysis of your saliva can then be resold onto pharmaceutical companies for much higher profits than the genealogy company would ever get from simple ancestry research. Hedge funds are another large beneficiary of these data markets, as they will often purchase and analyse the location data of swathes of shoppers to see which brands and stores are the most popular, allowing them to streamline their investments into what they see as the best options at the time.

In each example covered so far, the user receives something in the form of a service or reward of a sort in return for giving up their data. This is what allows large tech companies, the Apples and Googles of this world, to offer such top-notch services at such a low cost, if one at all, because the cost isn’t of monetary value to the consumer, but rather an surrendering of their privacy in exchange for these services. This is also incidentally what allows these companies, and others, to get away with all of this — we don’t notice the impact it has on our privacy because we’re too busy enjoying the services at our fingertips.

An area where this isn’t the case, and where the lines are blurred even further, is with data brokers. These are companies which trade exclusively in your data, collating it through largely public portals such as property records, marriage licences, and court records, along with the potential for medical records, browsing history, social media posts, etc, to also be included in their research. Even though this data may well be out of date by the time it’s purchased, it’s still of huge value to private enterprises — approximately $1 trillion for personalised data alone — so it’s safe to assume that this industry and these practices aren’t going anywhere for the time being.

Whilst there’s nothing legally wrong with said practises (at the moment), and the likelihood being that you’ll never truly notice the impact of your data being bought and sold left, right, and centre, it does feel as though this is a rather sinister erosion of privacy that could lead to an even more slippery slope as the physical and digital worlds become evermore intertwined. Time to start reading those cumbersome Terms of Service Agreements!

Currently, as discussed, the largest amount of data is collected through our screens as we use our smartphones and laptops constantly for both work and leisure. However, this will be diluted somewhat in the near future, if it hasn’t already, by the rise of things such as smart home devices and wearable technology. Amazon’s Echo is already listening in on millions of homes around the world and fitbits have been the latest fad to grace the technology market, with over a billion of them currently owned. To go one further, if you are more of a technophobe than most of us these days, things like CCTV cameras now have facial recognition technology in place across towns and cities, and even something as trivial as going to a concert can lead to having your facial data collected.

So, as evermore data is collected and our personal information becomes more of a commodity than it arguably should be, how do we deal with it in its current form and in the future when it will inevitably become more difficult for us to do so?

Well, unfortunately, as ever, it lies in the hands of our democratic institutions to legislate for the future. The issue is knowing how far this phenomenon will go and drafting laws which will be all encompassing for the time being, whilst leaving enough flexibility in the wording to be altered to cover new technologies and practises in the future. Easier said than done? Absolutely. Impossible? Who knows. The topic is gaining traction though, and there are groups out there at the moment doing some great work in researching the impacts and implications of what we’ve talked about here. Academics such as Colin Koopman are bringing attention to this issue through their teaching and through writing books — Koopman has been a large source of information for this article in fact.

The future may not be as dystopian as many of the current practices make it seem. As was the case with oil, once the truth was discovered about the damage it can do, companies and countries began to move away from it and other fossil fuels and more towards renewables. Initially this was started by research and pressure groups to the point where it was eventually taken seriously and acted upon by governmental bodies. The steps must be parallel (though hopefully at a slightly faster pace than it took for us to all agree on the importance of green energy), and it is up to us to stand up to the deliberate attrition of our privacy, as this can lead to some very dark places indeed.