The personal information that we agree to provide to a app they can be sold to hundreds or thousands of companies – and even end up on the “dark web”.
Although the magnitude of this “data economy” is not widely known, the truth is that there are more and more warnings and complaints about platforms about our privacy.
An example of this was the wave of criticism of WhatsApp when it announced that it would share its users’ information with Facebook. This caused its competitors Signal and Telegram, which they say are safer, to be massively downloaded.
Faced with the negative reaction, WhatsApp announced that the sharing of data would be postponed from February 8, as released at the beginning of January this year, to May 15, 2021.
Oxford professor and specialist in privacy and data protection, Carissa Vliz argues that the change in WhatsApp is quite invasive. However, she claims that the real “data vulture” is the owner of the messaging app: Facebook.
Author of the book “Privacy is Power“(” Privacy is a power “), Vliz talked to BBC Mundo (BBC’s Spanish service) about data protection today.
Below, read the interview with the scholar:
BBC Mundo – What is the importance of the changes announced by WhatsApp?
Carissa Vliz – At first glance, they don’t seem so radical changes. However, what WhatsApp plans to do is a very invasive act.
To understand the context, it is important to remember that Facebook bought WhatsApp in 2014 and, at the time, promised that the two companies would not share data.
In 2016, however, there was a change in attitude and Facebook decided that users could decide whether to share information between platforms or not. Now, they have decided that there will be no more opportunity to reject data sharing: if you do not accept the condition, you can no longer use WhatsApp. So I believe that the public reacted.
First, because they are quite intrusive measures. Some of metadata can be used to identify people. In this, I mean that I will have access to your phone number, your contact numbers, your profile pictures and when you were last online. In addition to data related to the situation of the battery of your cell phone and the use of the device.
Second, a reminder of how authoritative these companies are. They present you with conditions of use that are changing all the time. And after using the app for years, they tell you “all or nothing”; deliver your data or can no longer use the platform, losing your messages and contacts that you have cultivated with us for a long time.
After so many broken promises and so many lies and scandals, the usurios they are tired of being exploited in this way, of not being treated with respect and not being able to negotiate. So I believe that the response to WhatsApp’s changes was so negative.
BBC Mundo –How much can WhatsApp and Facebook know about a user? To what extent can they profile a person with the data they have?
Vliz – It all depends on how much the person uses the app and how much information provides about you. However, it is possible to infer answers to all types of questions. For example, who are your friends, who are your family members or who is your partner.
From the data it is possible to infer aspects such as sexual orientation, trends policies, how well a person sleeps, if someone gets up in the middle of the night to see their messages, health and interests. Even your addictions or if you have any diseases.
BBC Mundo – In your most recent book, you say that there are “data vultures”. How do they work?
Vliz – It is these companies that are dedicated to selling people’s records at the highest price. In particular, data brokers (“data brokers“, in English) that seek get elements such as what the person buys, what they search online, their accounts on social networks, the diseases they have, their income, their debts or the car they use. That is, all types of information.
After obtaining this data, brokers sell it to anyone who wants to buy. They may be insurance companies, banks, potential employers, or, in some situations, even governments, such as the United States.
These “data vultures” are also marketing companies. No one wants to see ads for things they are not interested in, so they try to show personalized ads.
It seems innocent, but this practice is far more perverse than that. Imagine that you enter any internet page that has advertisements and, while the page is loading, information with your data is provided in real time to hundreds of companies that may want to show you an advertisement without your consent. This information that you sell can include very sensitive aspects such as purchasing power, location, sexual or political orientation and your debts.
This whole package that reaches hundreds of companies with their information is kept and each of the owners of this information can sell it to other companies. And if there is a breach or virtual breach, these data can end up on the “dark web” (area of the internet with little control) to be sold to anyone.
I consider Facebook to be a “data vulture” because a company that basically makes money from exploiting users’ personal information.
BBC Mundo – How much does this affect internet users?
Vliz – It affects us invisibly and that’s part of the problem. It is not something tangible, but it can have catastrophic effects.
For example, it is possible that tomorrow we will borrow and that the Bank do not accept for any detail that is in these records that are for sale. It is possible that this data is incorrect or out of date. And we will never know, because it has never been explained to you based on what information this decision was made. And we will not know what can be done to reverse it.
It is quite possible that you will be impelled to take out a loan, get a loan, buy an apartment … and you will never find out why.
Another of the most pernicious effects of content personalization is announcements polarization. People like to see what confirms their worst suspicions and, often, incorrect information. Instead of having a public sphere in which everyone can debate, everyone sees a reality from their psychological profile.
In the Trump campaign, for example, instead of having five or six advertisements for everyone to see, there were six million different advertisements for the different profiles identified. This means that there is no healthy dialogue between perspectives different.
BBC Mundo – What can countries do to protect their citizens’ data?
Vliz – First you have to stop saving data. Personal information should not be something that can be sold or bought. Even the most capitalist societies agree that there are things that should be out of the market, such as votes or the people themselves, for example.
We need to raise cybersecurity standards a lot and this can pass through regulation. At the moment, the internet is built in a very insecure way, in parts to promote data collection and also because there is no incentives to improve it.
There is also a lack of diplomatic effort. We need a common alliance that can stand up to countries like China or Russia, which have very little respect for privacy.
BBC Mundo – Is it possible to recover the internet or a losing battle?
Vliz – I am quite optimistic. Years ago, when I started working in privacy, everyone thought it was a dead topic, but today more relevant than ever.
Years ago, no one thought that the GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation of the European Union, in Portuguese) would be possible and, although it is very imperfect, a milestone historical.
In the past, we have damaged many important things, such as the ozone layer. We realized that we were destroying it and now, with regulation and effort, it is recovering. Other examples that were previously unimaginable are universal suffrage, human rights labor, the eight-hour day and the cold.
Right now, the internet like the old west and we are going through a process civilization in which we have to make it more livable.
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