Last year, Netflix premiered the third season of the critically-acclaimed British TV series Black Mirror, a dystopian thriller. The scenarios it presents are not far from our own reality — the show brings to light our fears surrounding technology and its ever-increasing presence in our lives.
What is particularly unsettling about Black Mirror is the way in which it captures realities that seem altogether plausible when applied to our everyday lives. From cell phones to browser cookies, our devices collect information about us at alarming rates — and their grip on our lives is not getting any looser.
All of the data gathered is appropriately referred to as ‘big data’ considering its sheer volume. Despite its ubiquity, the constant collection of data is cause for concern.
Admittedly, the ever-increasing influence of big data has given rise to consumer awareness and the translation of legal jargon found in terms and conditions into everyday language. Yet, there are still a number of reasons we should remain wary of governments and corporations putting this data to use. The devil is in the details: there is always the potential that your data will be used against you.
The risks to privacy posed by cell phones, for instance, suggest that maybe you should read the terms and conditions before downloading any particular mobile application. Nowadays, it is almost a necessity to relinquish information when adding an app to your phone.
On iPhones and Androids, most apps will let you know they will have access to certain features on your device, such as your GPS and camera, along with information on your device such as your name, address, and phone number. While you are fast asleep with your phone resting on the side table, several apps on your phone may be monitoring your inactivity.
Furthermore, debit and credit cards are used everyday — and whenever you make a purchase in store with your card, that data is also collected. Concerningly, in 2013, hackers tapped into a trove of 40 million credit and debit card numbers collected by Target, which were then sold in an underground market.
Yet, data can be misused even by people we don’t usually consider criminal. In fact, corporations sell your data for money all the time. It is likely you are signed up for a loyalty program to get extra coupons and savings targeted to your purchases. But you get these savings because all your consumer purchases are meticulously collected, organized, and sometimes sold to third parties, who make money off of your spending preferences.
Even Facebook tracks your online behaviour and sells that data to advertisers who redirect certain ads to you based on your likelihood of purchase — an unsettling fact you may have encountered when seeing items that look familiar from past Google searches reflected in the sponsored content on your Newsfeed.
Under such circumstances, we may turn to the government to respond with regulatory action. Yet, it is important to remember that we are not necessarily safe from the government using data in unjust ways. Torontonian Ellen Richardson was denied entry to the US because she was once hospitalized for depression — her Canadian health records were transferred to the border and used to justify stopping her on the mistaken basis that she was ‘unstable’ and posed a potential threat.
We also cannot forget that Bill C-51 was passed to crack down on terrorism, but it also started a discourse on the extent of government control over our data. The bill’s purpose, at least in theory, was grounded in security — but it also called for us, as citizens, to entrust the government with our cellphone and email records, something that ought not to be taken lightly.
Considering that all the data we put out into the world is open to being collected, we should remain vigilant. However, the fact is that it is the government who has the power to regulate and must do so responsibly. Governments should press corporations for more transparency on data collection and require companies to disclose where customer data might be sold or shared. Furthermore, privacy policies ought to be made easier to understand in layman’s terms rather than legal jargon.
At the same time, considering that the government is not immune to abuse, the public should also be more involved in the process. Citizens must remain at the forefront of holding the government accountable when it fails to live up to standards of privacy.
Ayesha Tak is a fourth-year student at UTM studying Statistics and Sociology.