A Word on Your Personal Data

The sentiment to this story is merely the question: If my internet data is so profitable for companies, why am I giving it away for free, or worse, paying to have it taken?

Obviously, reality is more nuanced. My personal data is only profitable to companies who’ve invested the large overhead to create platforms like Amazon or Spotify. In that sense, do these pioneering companies deserve the riches they sow from the services they provide?

Today, services rule the most profitable marketplaces. Services are those things like Spotify, Apple Care, and Google Drive, which are all tools you use and potentially buy, and yet, these services are never things you can own. Instead, companies own these services, which they serve you according to their arrangements. And when those arrangements change, there’s not much you can do except to boycott the service, or acquiesce. The arrangement is usually like this: “Hi! Spotify, here. We will happily stream all your favorite songs. In exchange, we will track your music-listening behavior.” Fair enough, right? Yes, except the service you’re receiving is often grossly less valuable than the data you’re providing.

The typical answer is, “I don’t care if they — the tech company — profit from my data. Their services are helpful, and so I’m happy to oblige.” And that’s a fair answer, until it’s extrapolated to anything else that’s not an internet service. If only we all considered how malicious the greed of a company can grow.

What if your local grocery store knew about your afternoon hankerings for Oreos? And not only does your local grocer know you crave Oreos every Tuesday and Friday afternoon, but your grocer also knows where you live, knows how many Oreos you’ve eaten previously, and knows the exact amount of Oreos required to indulge your craving without satisfying it. (Because, of course, if they satisfied your craving, what would they sell you next time?) And so it is that your grocery store knows a lot about you. So what? Well, what if that same grocer anticipated these hankerings, and delivered Oreos to your doorstep at the precise moment of your craving? Would you eat the Oreo? It sounds absurd, and yet, internet services do this exact thing thousands of times a day.

Every time Facebook, Instagram, or Spotify shows you an advertisement or sends you a notification, it is to simultaneously learn your behavior and use that same behavior to maximize their profits. Sometimes it’s useful, and looks like this, “I’ve been meaning to buy Oreos for weeks now; I’m so glad they magically appeared at my door.” Other times it’s more malicious, “I’m going on a diet; why do they keep suggesting I eat Oreos?” Now, the “good” companies, like Apple, don’t “sell” your behaviors to other companies, and still, they use your data for internal profits.

This Bloomberg Opinion article is what prompted this post. To be fair, the article is loosely related. It’s more about Apple protecting user data by not creating a “back-door” for government agencies. A big caveat, however, is that Apple has only not created a “back-door” for data saved to your devices. All data collected as part of Apple’s array of services is freely available to anyone with a warrant. Meaning, if it saves to Apple’s iCloud, it’s free for the government to request. It’s a cute marketing ploy, I suppose, to say Apple “protects” user data. And I’m sure they do “protect” your data, along with many other companies. Because, afterall, your data is profitable.