An Opportunity for People and Businesses
Two days ago, I wrote two sentences about IKEA in a Medium comment. I started to receive IKEA ads on YouTube on another device the same day.
A few days ago, I bought the audiobook The Principles by Ray Dalio from audible.com. After that, YouTube started to recommend me videos by Ray Dalio. Maybe it was just a coincidence or maybe Google detected the receipt from my Gmail account.
YouTube, Medium, and Audible are just recent examples. There are other websites that use this type of practices.
The Feeling of Getting Stalked
When I see connections between unrelated websites, my “lizard brain” freaks out. I have the feeling that I’m stalked.
I feel like a creepy salesperson is watching my moves, notes it somewhere, and tries to use it against me to sell me stuff.
Then, I wonder what else “they” about me. By “they,” I mean all the internet companies who sell data to each other.
The Data Gang
It’s one thing that a website collects data about me. It’s a whole another thing when they “gang up” against me. It feels like all of my data is saved and used in a central database. That practice feels like “the big brother is watching me.”
I know that there isn’t a central database where all the data is collected. However, with all the data brokerage services between websites, this is how it feels likes. Mark Zuckerberg admitted using data brokerage services in his recent hearings and Facebook is not alone in this.
The Benefits of Big Data
Another part of my brain says that I’m worrying for no reason. I have nothing to hide. This type of connected data usage is good for me. It provides me with relevant content, products, and services.
In his recent hearings, Mark Zuckerberg argued that this type of data use is good for small businesses. They can advertise their products and services cheaper. As a result, consumers can buy those products and services cheaper.
The big data makes advertisement and as a result products and services cheaper.
Sure, some of that benefits all of us. There’s an opportunity for all of us. Nothing hold us back from using those services to advertise our own products or services. Some of us could even find ways to use data to build businesses.
Even a blogger or a social media influencer can learn a lot from their stats. I’m not an influencer, but when I dove into my Medium stats, I came up with lessons published in ten blog posts. And this is just the beginning.
The Dark Side of Big Data
The big data is about manipulating people. Data is used to keep us on a website as long as possible, even if it’s against our interests. It’s used to extract as much money as possible out of our pockets. In the worst case, it’s used to manipulate us to vote in a certain way that might not be in our best interests.
Back in the day, I used Amazon’s affiliate links. My goal was to sell personal development books. I recommended the books that added value to my life. I wanted those books to add value to the lives of others as well and get paid in return.
One day, I received an affiliate sales notification. The person I sent to Amazon not only bought the book I recommended, they also bought some bracelets. I felt bad for them.
I felt like I caused someone to waste their money on something they didn’t need. I didn’t sign up to be a cheap bracelet salesman. I signed up to be a book salesman. Amazon converted a book reader into a bracelet shopper.
The Business Model of the Future
I know some of you are worrying about the feasibility of Medium‘s business model. We like Medium, because it doesn’t bombard us with heaps of advertisement. I published a post about a possible monetization scheme for Medium in the past.
Maybe, we are worrying for nothing. Maybe, Medium is already monetizing our data. Maybe, the premium membership is just a façade to answer the question “how do you make money?” I don’t know.
There’s one thing that I’m sure of.
More and more Internet businesses will be based on selling the data of their users to third parties.
It is already a widespread practice and it will spread even more if it is not regulated. European Union is already taking measures against this practice.
Take a Critical Look at Every Device, App, and Tool You Use.
Recently, I received a lot of recommendations for Grammarly.com. Finally, I wanted to give them a try. They have an option to install a plugin to my browser. When I tried to do that, Firefox warned me.
If I installed the plugin, everything that I typed in to my browser would go through that plugin.
I don’t know Grammarly.com that well to trust them with everything I type in to my browser. I didn’t install it.
There’s another tool that I use frequently, the Hemingway App. It’s a literary style checking app. They allow me to copy and paste my text to their online editor. That means I know and I choose which text to send to their service. Why can’t Grammarly.com come up with something similar?
Maybe, the Hemingway App sells my data to third parties as well. I can live with that, because I publish those texts as blog posts. Probably, other parties are going to collect and sell that data anyway.
Think About All the Freemium Tools that You Use.
I use Evernote and Workflowy. Both tools have free versions and paid versions. They appear to make money from their premium subscriptions. Do they sell my data to third parties? I don’t know. I didn’t read their privacy policies.
Google, the Data Giant
It’s obvious that any Google product that you use collects data about you. I use Gmail, Google Drive, Google Maps, and Google’s search app on iPhone. A lot of people use Android phones and Chrome. Think about all the data collected by all of those apps and phones.
How about Google’s paid services? I pay for Google Drive. Do they treat the privacy of the paid customers differently than the free customers? Probably not.
Maybe, it was a mistake to purchase extra Google Drive space. Maybe, I should have purchased disk space in a service that respected my privacy more.
Using an iPhone is not enough to be tracked by Google. By using Google Maps, I expose myself to their data collection.
In a way that data collection has benefits. It tells me the peak hours in the traffic and in the grocery store. However, I don’t know what else they do with all the data they collect. And Facebook and Google collect a lot of data. Check this Guardian piece for more on this.
How About Messaging Apps?
How does Facebook use the What’s App data? What’s App isn’t a social app where people are willing to share information about themselves publically. It’s a private messaging platform. The data shared over that platform is much more sensitive. How about FaceTime by Apple?
How About Apple and Microsoft?
We don’t expect Apple and Microsoft to collect data about us. After all, we pay a big price for their hardware and software.
Is that so? What kind of data does an iPhone, Microsoft Office, or Windows collect about us? How do they use that data? I don’t know.
I never entered my home or work address or working hours to my iPhone, but it keeps telling me how long it would take me to go to work when I’m about to leave. That feels creepy too.
A Solution Proposal to the Privacy Puzzle
Using only open source software is an option. I don’t know how feasible an option it is.
Another option is to come up with standard privacy certifications. Each certification can denote a different level of privacy. Something like platinum standard, golden standard, and silver standard. Each level would be documented online clearly.
That documentation would have two versions. Something that could be understood by the average person, explained with easy to understand diagrams. And a legal version to be used in the courtroom if it comes to that.
Independent auditors could verify companies for each standard and issue certificates to them. Companies could choose to certify their products or services or not.
If Google and Facebook choose not to certify their products or services, then people would know the level of privacy they get from those products and services.
Eventually, they could come up with products and services at different levels. There could be a free version of Gmail and Google Drive with no privacy certification and premium versions with privacy certifications at different levels.
Like the average tech user, privacy is a big mystery to me. I don’t know what data the software and websites that I use collect from my usage. I don’t know how they use the data they collect from me. There’s one thing that I’m sure of. I feel like being stalked by the big brother.
There is a solution to the privacy puzzle. This solution is at the same time an opportunity for businesses.
Just come up with simple, easy to understand privacy levels and certify products and services with those levels.
That way the users know what they sign up for and businesses can create new revenue from the premium level products and services.
Software developer with a Ph.D. and 15 years of experience. I write daily on personal development and life lessons. Sign up to my email newsletter to receive a weekly overview of my latest content on personal development and life lessons.