Data is Power: Privacy and the Surveillance Economy

The ubiquity of computing and networking technologies, massive adoption of mobile devices and apps, and the rise of social media platforms, are rapidly transforming our social norms. Individual privacy, in particular, has changed pretty fast in the last 20 years while the networked communication environment has been established. Most of the data collected from millions of users interacting with Internet technologies is continuously being analyzed in order to make predictions, identify patterns, target advertisement, build customer profiles, and test new features. Internet corporations and business such as Google, and Facebook, are actively mining gigantic data sets created by users. As we run queries on a search engine, send emails, click on buttons, and browse the world wide web, we are constantly creating digital traces that are being collected, archived and analyzed by corporations and business. That data, as we also have come to known is also being analyzed by the U.S. agencies such as the NSA.

Data is power. The practice of collecting user data by tech companies has created a complex surveillance economy in which mining individual data has become a highly profitable practice. We rarely read the terms of services of the web services and apps that we use in our everyday lives. And even when we read them and are aware that we are giving away our private data, we usually opt for using the services. We constantly trade our privacy for a convenient technology service, and tend to follow the collective action of our peers, and millions of other users who have also joined new socio-technical systems.

The digital world is paradoxical. It is full of contradictions. Technology moves fast  without that much regulation. Market driven technological change is contradictory. Digital technology empowers and dis-empower users at once. Despite the fact that new technologies are empowering users, we are also giving away our data and empowering Internet companies of all sizes. Surveillance is one of the biggest businesses of the Internet. The most powerful corporations are those who can collect and mine “big data” through the creation of sophisticated and efficient algorithms. Big data analytics empower companies to make predictions, build consumer profiles, target advertisement, and track user behavior.s

The speed of technological change, however, is creating an environment in which data is vulnerable and insecure. The “big data” that technology companies are interested in storing and mining, is vulnerable. Data breaches are increasingly common and put at risks our privacy. Identity theft and public embarrassment, to name just a few of the most risky ones, reveal how vulnerable our privacy has become in the digital age.


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