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An Inconvenient Digital Truth

Ethan Mathieu

Imagine having to pay a fee each time you wanted to do a Google search. What if you had to sign up for a subscription in order to send an email? These free services have become such an integral part of our online experience that it’s almost impossible to envision such a world. Except these services are not free. The currency is just not what you might expect.
Instead of paying Google using money issued by the government, you give the corporation access to your personal information. In order to keep their innovations free of monetary charge, many other web applications follow this model. However, as we move deeper into the digital era, your personal information may no longer be safe.  
Facebook’s recent data leak was a demonstration of hostile groups prominently entering the digital sphere. The attack rendered nearly 50 million accounts at risk. Some document their entire lives on these sites and thus became rightfully alarmed by the breach. Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, was summoned to testify before Congress. He was tasked with explaining how his company is working to keep America’s digital footprint safe. Fingers were pointed towards the man who arguably birthed the modern social media era. The party line was that Facebook wrongfully collected and stored user data in vulnerable locations. As a result, Facebook’s public approval rating sunk overnight, illustrating the nearly unanimous stance against the company. According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 50% of American adults believe that online advertisers should not save their information. It is clear that there is concern as to the purpose and storage of the collected data. In the same study, 53% stated they were “not confident at all” regarding the security of their data. Those views are not without some merit. In 2016, 41 million Americans suffered from identity theft. Tied to services like Google and Facebook could be enough information for potential fraudsters to act as if they were you. With the risk of online impersonation comes the possibility of losing your valuables; 16 billion dollars were lost by consumers in 2017 due to identity fraud.
However, you agreed to a certain degree of risk when you checked the Terms of Service box and agreed to the Privacy Policy without reading it. In fact, 90% of Americans surveyed admitted to doing the same. By checking that box, you trade complete security for access to a product you want. These commercial online entities are simply exercising their right to store and sell your data. The Facebook leak is merely a demonstration of a worst case scenario that you as a user agreed to.
Consumers conveniently fail to recall that they made no direct financial payment to use Facebook, Google, or other digital organizations mentioned in the data privacy debate. Mass data aggregation is, ultimately, a means to an end. These online enterprises exist solely to make money, the overall goal in our capitalistic society, and this is the way they do it.
After collecting data, such as your search history or location, corporations sell it to big data repositories or use it to influence the ad they display to you on their own site. Other businesses can also pay to have online advertising services manage the distribution of their ads based on the information they gather. The reason for doing so is found in the Baconian belief that “knowledge is power”. The more information they compile, the better the picture they can paint of you. The better the picture, the better the ad they can direct to you. The better the ad, the more likely you are to buy the product being advertised. The more products you buy, the more money each party involved makes. This cycle is at the heart of big data collection.
While an institution harvesting your information and selling it off to advertisers may sound bad, it is actually in your interest as the consumer. You get a free product and relevant ads about items you might actually purchase while online businesses like Facebook continue to run profitability.
There are a couple of viable solutions to the recent gridlock that require each side to make changes. First, the technology business as a whole needs to recognize the bad optics of a data breach and work to be more secure. If all of your potential users are scared of losing their privacy, nothing else matters. While data collection is necessary, it does not mean companies should be careless with the data they collect.
The other solution falls on the consumer. You can start paying companies for their services. Some, mostly mobile apps, already offer a pay to remove ads feature. You have to ask yourself if you would be willing to pay a fee to search with Google or share a photo on Instagram. If paid, these corporations would be incentivized to gather only the data necessary to run the application. For example, Google Maps absolutely needs your current location and the place you want to go in order to function. A mechanism Google could implement for paid subscribers would be the right to turn off the storage of past locations. Google no longer needs that information to influence advertisements since the consumer is now directly paying them for their services.
Where’s the line for companies like Google and Facebook and their data collection? In essence, there is no line. Anything that can be used to contribute to your user profile is valuable to them and thus worth collecting. A better question might be: what is your own line? As a society we have been conditioned to expect access to online goods such as Google for free. Do you as a consumer want to accept the risk brought by using personal information as an online currency, or do you want to start paying differently?
Google made 95 of their 110 billion dollars in revenue from advertising in 2018. Could Google maintain the service we are used to with nearly 86% of their revenue stream taken away? Consumers need to decide whether they are willing to accept the inconvenient truth of the digital era: nothing is ever truly free, and there will always be a quid pro quo.

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