Here's what the economy's growing demand for data means for youLast year, we discussed how data brokers and tech companies work to collect your data and how these practices indirectly impact your life. We decided to once again look at this topic in a series we’re dubbing The Future of Privacy, which will explore just how expansive data collection is set to become, the ways it’s shaping the privacy debate and how it’s already begun transforming every aspect of the economy and our lives. In this first post, read up on what society’s collective growing demand for data means for us as individuals.

Mass data collection revisited

In last year’s post, we focused on the types of data collection practiced by tech companies and data brokers, primarily for advertising, selling and risk assessment, as well as the impacts they all have on your privacy. While the data collection of these industries is extensive, the true scope of data’s prevalence in our lives goes far beyond our Internet behaviors. It’s true that our activities online produce unfathomable amounts of information, but at the core of things, individuals, institutions and societies have always produced records. Schools produce tests which create test scores to track students’ progress, medical records are produced from our doctor’s office visits, financial transaction records are created from exchanging goods and services, the list of the information that we and the systems we use create goes on endlessly.

What sets apart today’s world from the past is that data is becoming open to the extent that third parties, can combine these disparate data sets to make broader assumptions about people and systems. We’ve peppered examples of this across many of our cybersecurity and Internet of things (IoT) posts: we’ve briefly alluded to technologies that allow for personalized learning in schools, personalized financial planning, personalized insurance features and, on the largest scale, entire “smart cities” where data across a range of activities, including crime, is monitored and regulated. All of this data, when combined with technologies like the Internet of things and artificial intelligence, holds promise to transform education, healthcare, banking, city development and pretty much everything else that touches our lives. As such, many experts think that it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that we are on the cusp of the next industrial revolution.

Everything is tech and tech is everything

What exactly do all of these developments mean? From what some experts are saying, it sounds like we’re entering a brave new world, a world offering lots of promises for bettering our lives but also holding an equal number of pitfalls for our privacy and well-being. The biggest implication for consumers is that this societal change means privacy is not simply a tech issue, but an everything issue. Our data is everywhere, and by simply participating in any aspect of society, we produce information that is in someone else’s hands from the outset. What’s more, new technological developments like the ones mentioned above are diffusing to nearly every industry, causing lines to blur between services. This is somewhat frivolously illustrated by the names investors are giving to emerging industries – edtech (Educational technology), fintech (Financial Technology), healthtech (Health Care Technology) and many others. This “techification” of society is promising greater efficiencies and better access to goods and services, but one of the key components driving it is data — which underscores the prevalence of data collection in today’s world. Data collection and privacy aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but a tension can and often does exist, especially as young industries push against the boundaries of our common notions of privacy.

Privacy’s next upgrade

When we put privacy issues into this context, it drastically changes the scope of the discussion. Viewing all the recent advances in tech and data collection in this manner makes it apparent that the privacy failures of the past decade aren’t just random, isolated events; they’re growing pains caused by a young, but deeply rooted social and economic transformation. Unfortunately, our laws and our language around privacy have failed to catch up with this change, leaving us grasping at straws every time a breach or duplicitous data collection practice is discovered. The current state of affairs leaves us in a less-than-desirable place for the near future, but a few things can be done to help us deal with the transition to a world with better privacy.

We need to change the way we view privacy

People tend to be disposed to seeing privacy as an issue that falls squarely within an individual’s control. In many ways, this is certainly true, as good cybersecurity habits like the ones we outline in many of our posts can somewhat limit the exposure of your data. However, as incidents like the Cambridge Analytica scandal illustrate, in many ways other people and entities have more control over our data than we do. While we can control what information we personally decide to make available to third parties, it’s also important to note that our friends, family and the services we use can provide the details they know about us to whomever they decide. This makes privacy both an individual problem as well as a societal problem. Individuals do need to be cautious about what information they choose to reveal to anyone, be it family or companies, but on the flipside, developers need to be more mindful about the ways in which they collect, store and use data.

We need to understand the risks of emerging products and services

As the number of data-hungry services and devices increases, we as consumers need to be more critical about what does and doesn’t belong in our lives. It’s important to note that IoT devices and online services aren’t inherently insecure, but the current state of the industry means there’s a lot of incentive for companies to use data to drive their business or products. This means that it could make business sense to sell insecure products or to change positions on privacy on a whim — two things that put consumer privacy at risk for exploitation.

We need to vote in politicians who care about privacy

Improving privacy for consumers will require strong legislation that will seek to upgrade and enhance industry standards. Though some states have taken the initiative in addressing privacy issues, many haven’t. Worst yet, as last year’s repeal of net neutrality shows, some politicians are not merely indifferent or disinterested in privacy, but they’re actively opposed to privacy legislation. If this is an issue that matters to you, then you need to identify politicians both in your state and local governments who are committed to ensuring that data-intensive industries grow responsibly and vote for them. None of this is to say that industry is blameless, especially considering how dangerous it is to leave products insecure or deliberately designed to collect more data than is necessary to function. Still, it’s not industry alone contributing to this issue, as consumer convenience plays a small role in perpetuating some of today’s privacy problems. In order to address these issues, as well as the ones of the horizon, we all need to change the way we think of cybersecurity and privacy.

For more analysis of growing technology trends, keep reading our technology blog.