Is it wrong for tech companies to track your data?
- Five of the top 10 US Tech companies, as reported by Disfold’s January 29, 2021 market capitalization report, are Apple ($2.288 T), Microsoft ($1.749 T), Amazon ($1.609 T), Alphabet ($1.22 T), and Facebook ($735.8 B).
- The Pew Research Center reported in 2019, that majority of Americans felt concerned about online privacy, both from companies and the government. In regards to companies tracking data, 81% expressed concern over lack of control over how their data is collected, 81% believed the risks outweighed the benefits of data collection, and 79% said they were very/somewhat concerned over how companies use the collected data.
- 2021 research from Clario, an online security platform, details which apps know the most about its users. The five social media apps are Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Clubhouse, and Twitter. The five Google apps that know the most are Google Maps, YouTube, Google Docs, Google Sheets, and Gmail.
- Facebook collects 70.59% of user data, as it has access to “all manner of personal information, including your age, your marital status, your location, your sexual orientation, where you work, your religious beliefs and even if you own pets.” In contrast, Amazon uses the least amount of user data, collecting only 23.53% from its users.
Society has developed this assumption that data tracking is akin to the internet stalking and government monitoring depicted in movies. The word 'tracking' leads consumers to believe an individual is watching them behind a computer screen at these intimidatingly large companies. However, this fear of data tracking comes from a place of ignorance.
The biggest misconception about data tracking is that data is used to follow or track the user specifically. In reality, their data is used in product improvement and targeted advertising. According to Business News Daily, your data tells tech companies what consumers like and use most about their products. Companies need to follow their users' trends in large groups—not individually—to decide what audience they want to target for maximum product engagement.
Data tracking isn't done against the consumer's will, though. In the United States, consumers can opt out of having their data collected, and individual states are responsible for creating laws that protect users' privacy. According to the State of California Department of Justice website, the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) 'secures new privacy rights for California consumers.' These rights are listed for consumers to easily understand what they have a say in and how their data is used.
Targeted advertising most often relies on data tracking to present the most relevant ads to their users, based on their preference. Modern algorithms can predict—from social media interaction alone—personal traits like gender, age, sexuality, drug habits, political leanings, etc., with a terrifying level of accuracy, and target ads effectively based on that.
This may seem relatively harmless to the average person, but the practice actually holds a lot of very dangerous potential. Targeted data profiles allow sellers to automatically mark up prices of certain items—or just show more expensive items—to specific users, based on purchase history.
But the danger goes deeper, and so does the kinds of data collected. Detailed user profiles enable discrimination and abuse on a corporate level and in ways that are almost impossible to detect, much less prove.
Data is bought and sold across the internet more than anything else, producing highly detailed data profiles compiled from hundreds of websites. Profiles allow insurance companies to speculate on medical history based on data like social media posts or browser history and discriminate or raise prices because of it. The same process banks to automatically reject loans based on Facebook friends or jobs to discard applications based on a smoking habit, whether or not the algorithm even correctly profiled you at the beginning.
There is also a much more physical danger to data selling, and it lies in location tracking. The apps on your phone collect and sell your location data hundreds of times a day. While most of that data goes to location-based advertising, it's dangerously easy for someone who means much worse to get ahold of it.