April 28, 2020

How Tech Giants Benefit From Data Collection?

Mass Data Collection

Privacy means people know what they’re signing up for, in plain language, and repeatedly. I believe people are smart. Some people want to share more than other people do. Ask them.” –
Steve Jobs

Whenever we hear the story of a big company it all starts the same. 

The birth of an ingenious idea, a strong character hustling through the obstacles of life, a mind-blowing leap that leaves everyone speechless. The brand explodes and becomes a sensation and everyone lives happily thereafter.

But in reality, the ascension to the top is nearly not as glamorous, and not because it’s a long, drawn-out process, but because big companies exploit and undercut products who dare to offer people an alternative. 

The means of staying on top are different, but data always plays an integral role in every story, behind every big company. 

Ethical Data Collection Is Somewhat of an Oxymoron in 2020

Personal data collection is so wide-spread and universal, that many don’t notice it in our digital lives.

We all know by now why companies need it, and that data is divided into two categories: declared data, and implicit data. 

Declared data is everything you input yourself to a platform of your choice, whether it is a name or age. Implicit data is the information that you leave behind yourself just using the Internet. Your web searches, mouse movements, time spent on any page, video you watch – all that information belongs to the implicit category, which greatly interests tech companies. 

Most often we share our personal information when setting up accounts or subscribing to services, buying online, but when it comes to tech giants, that information is not enough. Websites continue to track our activity outside of their environment to know who they are competing with, what you are looking for, and how they can use that information to sell you something.

Often veiled under the reasoning of improving user experience in online services or delivering relevant targeted ads just for you, data collection delivers other undisputed benefits to platform providers, and it’s not all for advertising revenue. Sometimes this tracking is essential for taking the next step in growing the company.

For example, Facebook recently took a $5.7 billion stake in Indian internet giant Jio [1] to expand its already impressive international reach. Amazon gains a competitive advantage over the customers of their front and back-end infrastructure to improve the marketability of their own goods [2]. 

Coursera deletes your account if you don’t allow it to sell your data to partners [3], for example. A telling example of a company that is not even pretending to care about your privacy.

Companies are looking to benefit from owning your data one way or another, and it’s not in their interest to safeguard that information. Too much effort, and not enough return on investment. 

Keeping All Your Data Personal Is a Tall Task

Just like it is impossible for one technological solution to protect you from all online threats, it is almost impossible for a user to maintain complete privacy and anonymity online today.

Between Facebook, Google, Amazon, and Apple brands you might try to avoid, you will still use affiliated products that would interact with one of the four platforms without your consent.

Looking for privacy on the Internet is like looking for dignity in a gentleman’s club. 

The place that is the Internet exists for three reasons, after all:

  1. To sell you things
  2. To steal things from you
  3. To dictate an opinion that would allow someone to do steps one or two

The question in hand should not state “who should I trust with my data”, but “what am I doing to decrease my digital footprint?”. Abandoning social media is a step in the right direction, but it’s more useful for your mental health, and not privacy.

As you may know, just not having an account on Facebook doesn’t stop the company from gathering your data [4] from the browsing history or the activity of your friends. While this does not allow them to make money directly, it gives them a chance to persuade you to join the platform.

There’s no way to opt-out from it. What’s worse, family members or friends who decide to share their contacts with Facebook would divide all those privacy-seeking efforts by zero. 

It’s also not a question of whether companies are saving that information. The real question is “how long do they keep it and how are they protecting it?”. 

Once again, Facebook is not doing a good job with it. Over 419 million phone numbers were exposed online in 2019, as personal information was gathered by a third party that did not protect the database with a password, let alone encryption [5]. 

There are numerous examples of Facebook negligence, and writing about all incidents would feel like writing a post about Zoom vulnerabilities. Just as you think you’re done, a new snafu happens, and you have to continue on and on until you just realize it is just a big waste of time.

Data Collection Is How Tech Giants Keep the Competition at Bay

Data negligence from Facebook is not new, and neither is its history with Cambridge Analytica [6]. 

The story with Onavo, on the other hand, often flies under the radar. Onavo was "the first mobile market intelligence service based on real engagement data" startup company, and it was acquired by Facebook for 200 million. Onavo presented a VPN solution that “protected” people’s secrecy and secured their personal data on paper, but routed user’s traffic through Facebook servers in reality. [7]

Information provided by Onavo effectively pushed Facebook to acquire the growing brand called WhatsApp, in 2014, after they learned about the consumers’ use of other apps.

If we talk about Amazon, it also uses data of their customers unethically. The model of their success is not elegant in the slightest – Amazon employees find something that sells well, copies the idea to create a similar product, and then pushes the smaller vendor down in searches to put Amazon-branded products in a better position. 

When asked about the misuse of merchant information and the breach of integrity, the Amazon workforce does not feel very guilty about it.

"We knew we shouldn’t," one former employee said. "But at the same time, we are making Amazon branded products, and we want them to sell."

Amazon lied to Congress about their internal practices, but it would likely not face any consequences for it. You can’t lie to the Congress only if you’re poor, right?

Being Big Is OK, but Taking Shortcuts to Stay Big Is Not OK

When it comes to using its size, Amazon and Facebook are not the only big companies that put the practice of replicate-and-obliterate to use, Apple’s App Store can be accused of the same wrongdoings [8].

But funnily enough, all those companies are living in Google’s world, who rakes in the most ad money out of them all. Google/Alphabet domination is somewhat low-key, as many regular Internet users don’t even know much about Google’s parent company.

Google can be continually questioned over its “blackbox” ad business where they dominate over everybody, and its privacy violations could become a topic for a more detailed overview.

It is somewhat telling that the bigger the company is – the lesser we know about what it does. 

This is 2020 big tech in a nutshell. 

Big tech companies are no longer innovators, instead, they acquire businesses that outperform them or copy their features if they refuse to sell. For example, Snapchat thought against selling out for 3 billion dollars in 2013, which led to the creation of Facebook stories and Instagram stories.

Big firms not only use our personal data to boost their revenue, they analyze our user preferences to find out who they should buy off or cast their large shadow upon.

This is not a direct attack on our privacy, but a cutdown of existing platforms that could become an alternative if they could flourish further. Business monopoly is an enemy of democracy and a death sentence for a creative market. 

Businesses, as much as people, deserve a fair treatment that could be perceived by the realists as the “pipe dream”.

Big Changes Are Needed to Oppose Big Companies

It is easier to accept things as they are than to change them, and this is the world we are living in now. 

User privacy and data security take a gargantuan effort from every user online, but sadly, most consumers are on the side of the Big 4, as they don’t know anything better or don’t understand the true value of privacy.

This makes the power alliance of Google and Apple to create a Bluetooth-based COVID-19 tracking technology a bad omen that would enrich corporations much more than it would help regular people.

Facebook is no longer just a social media, Google is no longer just a search engine. Tech companies are no longer just “tech” companies, they are in the data collection business that is unregulated and abusive to the personal rights of people like you and me.

To summarize, big tech companies are hoarding personal data as much to survive, as to enrich themselves. They are too power-hungry because they would not stay on top without bending the rules, and they control too much. These are not companies, these are entities that act as governments.

Companies should be prohibited from owning both the platform utility and any participants on that platform. Illegal and competition-stifling mergers should be investigated, so big companies would not feel free to throw their weight around without facing consequences. 

There’s no need in breaking up “big tech” to achieve a better breeding ground for innovation either. I don’t think anyone will argue that a competitive environment pushes everyone in the marketplace to deliver better products and services. 

As a business owner, I want to have a fair playing field. As a tech enthusiast, I want to see more startups that will succeed. 

Finally, as an Internet user, I want a little more respect for my privacy.

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