The patterns of our daily lives define who we are far more accurately than anyone could have imagined. These patterns are not found just in our routines, they encompass our vocabulary, our online behavior, and even the types of vehicles we drive. To most people, such discrete nuggets of information may seem innocuous and until very recently, they were.
Then, big data and machine learning entered the picture.
With the advent of supercomputers and advanced artificial intelligence, vast volumes of incongruous data are no longer useless. They can be filtered, compared, and realigned to reveal analytical information that is frightening in its seeming omniscience.
Consider these real-life examples:
The first tells us that anonymity is dead; the second, that your choice of vehicle can be weaponized politically; and the last, that you leak your health information to unknown entities every day. In short, the privacy of your personal information is no longer simply a matter of confidentiality; its security aspects hold far greater potential for abuse.
Such revelations might have been met with far less alarm before 2018’s Cambridge Analytica saga. It uncovered Facebook’s deliberate and egregious breaches of privacy – Mark Zuckerberg’s company was trading users’ personal information without their knowledge.
Google has come under scrutiny, too, for the manner in which it collects and sells user data. It also spends more money on lobbying in Washington D.C. than any other company, meaning that we cannot rely on government regulation alone for protection. This news comes at a time when it has become almost common to hear that yet another hack has compromised millions of users’ personal information. Ordinary people and organizations of every size and type have to contend with this veritable minefield of threats from both hostile actors and seemingly-benign entities who literally sell us out.
The solution lies in action at the personal and company level. Facebook found this out the hard way when the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal led to a $119 billion fall in market capitalization. Google is getting pushback from truly anonymous search engines like strangely-named DuckDuckGo, which does not collect any user information. Politicians in Europe, where Google’s political sway is not as powerful, also passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) privacy law in 2018.
While such actions do give huge conglomerates pause for thought when they consider exploiting personal user data, a fundamental shift in approach is needed. Perhaps stiffer penalties are needed for businesses and individuals who continue to use personal information in ways it was never intended.