Technology companies have been hit by revelations about how badly they protect their customers’ personal information, including a detailed report from the New York Times that details the ability of smartphone applications to track user locations. Some companies, especially Apple, have begun to promote the fact that they sell products and services that safeguard consumer privacy.
Smartphone users are never explicitly asked if they want to track every moment of every day. However, all cell phone companies, smart phone manufacturers, application developers and social media companies claim that they have permission from users to perform almost constant personal surveillance.
The underlying problem is that most people do not understand how tracking really works. Technology companies have not helped teach their clients about it either. In fact, they have intentionally concealed important details to build a multibillion-dollar data economy based on an ethically questionable notion of informed consent.
How consumers are made to agree
But people do not always have a free option. Instead, it is a “take it or leave it” agreement, in which a customer can use the service only if they agree.
Anyone who really wants to understand what the policies say finds that the details are buried in long legal documents that almost no one can read, maybe except the lawyers who helped them create them.
Often, these policies will begin with a general statement such as “your privacy is important to us.” However, the real terms describe a different reality. In general, it is not so farfetched to say that the company can basically do what it wants with their personal information, as long as it has been reported.
In theory, users could vote with their feet and find similar services from a company with better data privacy practices. But “take it or leave it” agreements for technologically advanced tools limit the power of competition in almost the entire technology industry.
Data sold to third parties
There are some situations in which mobile platform companies like Apple and Google have allowed people to exercise some control over data collection.
For example, the mobile operating systems of both companies allow users to deactivate location services, such as GPS tracking. Ideally, this should prevent most applications from collecting your location, but not always. In addition, it does not do anything if your mobile service provider resells the location information of your phone to third parties.
Application developers can also persuade users not to deactivate location services, again with “take it or leave it” notifications. When managing privileges for iOS applications, users can choose whether the application can access the location of the phone “always”, “while using the application” or “never”.
But changing the configuration can trigger a disheartening message: “We need your location information to improve your experience,” says one application. Users are not asked other important questions, as if they approve of the application selling its location history to other companies.
And many users do not know that even when their name and contact information are removed from the location data, even a modest location history can reveal the addresses of their homes and the places they visit the most, offering clues about their identities, medical conditions and personal relationships.
Why people don’t opt out
Websites and applications make it difficult, and sometimes impossible, for most people to reject aggressive data collection and surveillance practices. In my role as a student of human-computer interaction, a topic I study is the power of predetermined values.
When companies set a default value in a system, such as “location services set to”, people are unlikely to change it, especially if they are unaware that there are other options they could choose from.
In addition, when it is not convenient to change the location services, as is the case with the iOS and Android systems currently, it is even less likely that people choose not to participate in the location collection, even when they do not like it.
The privacy policies of the companies that take it or leave it and the predetermined options for the privacy settings of the users have created an environment in which people do not know that their lives are being subjected to minute-by-minute surveillance.
In addition, most are not aware that the information that could identify them individually is resold to create more and more specific advertising. However, companies can legally, if not ethically, affirm that they all agreed.