In an ever increasing world of interconnectivity the modern day consumer’s personal and private information is subject to exploitation via technologies which unknowingly extract and sell user information on a daily basis. The distribution of personal data is currently a major financial resource for corporate giants Google and Facebook who dominate the digital advertising market as they allow marketers better targeting options; elsewhere data from your mobile phone can be resold by your telecommunications company to other groups. The capacity of developing technologies is becoming increasingly apparent to the general public and due to the extremely limited legislation currently in place to dictate who can see and use this data we must beg the question as to where measures must be taken and who by?
The dark side of stored data
A major issue related to the storage of data is the lack of control that the general public have over their personal information. This is particularly the case with various social media platforms which contain vast amounts of personal information, extremely valuable to marketers and campaigners. In recent years, platforms as prolific as Facebook have come under scrutiny for their use of “Friends’ permission” data. Initially used for applications such as games and quizzes, friends’ permission was a feature used by outside software developers that allowed access to the personal data of friends of the people who used the apps. This access was terminated in mid-2014, however it is not known how many developers used this data. Facebook continues to sell personal data to outside developers but it is now more restricted and requires users’ permission. In spite of this a recent scandal involving the use of data acquired from Facebook revealed that “Friends’ permission” had been used to gather data through a personality quiz. It was uncovered that the data mining/ data analysis company Cambridge Analytica had used the data to run Donald Trump’s political digital campaign and that over 50 million users’ information had been harvested despite only 270,000 of which using the quiz.
Another increasingly concerning issue for the general public is the safety of private data. As the capacity and usage of online storage has become increasingly widespread, private financial information and information considered confidential has become increasingly exposed to hostile attacks. The NHS suffered one of most significant cyber attacks in UK history in 2017 when hackers were able to access and block the use of patient records and further freeze the use of key systems, including telephones. Companies handling sensitive data, such as this, therefore have a responsibility to keep cyber security ahead of the hackers. Elsewhere intrusion into private life is becoming the norm where technologies such as phone tapping, car tracking, satellite positioning monitoring and workplace monitoring track the activities of the general public masses on a daily basis. The development and application of these modern technologies have made privacy nowhere to hide and pose a very real threat to those affected.
The light side of stored data
While there are some drawbacks to personal data acquisition, corporations especially those in the online retail sector often use collected data for the benefit of their customers by improving products and services based on consumer preferences. By using massive amounts of data they can tailor their products to suit your taste as a consumer and provide more personal shopping experiences based on your online and in-store shopping habits. JD, an online retail company in china, is using its shopping data about consumers in geographic locations to supply goods to convenience stores, cutting the need to travel long distances to purchase a product. Amazon uses vast amounts of personal data about their users to add value to their customer service relationships by creating more individualised and human customer service interactions.
Data about individuals can also be sourced from other devices around the individual. The rise of smartphones has led to an exponential increase in video recordings. Smart glasses and autonomous vehicles will have most areas of an urban city surveyed at any point in time and its estimated that by 2022 the total number of cameras in the world will be about 45 billion. The awareness of surveillance this raises the security of roads and alleyways as it deters offenders and decreases the likelihood of terrorist attacks. It also reduces the fear of crime thereby stimulating investment and the implementation of innovative technology in communities.
A combination of data from varying sources about an individual’s habits can give a lot of information to improve the efficiency of personalised healthcare. Data on quality of food, fitness levels, sleeping patterns etc can get you a quicker and more informed diagnosis from your doctor. It can be used to suggest healthier habits and point out early indicators on diseases therefore preventing them before they occur. In this context, a utilitarian perspective comfortably agrees with personal data acquisition as its use provides the greatest happiness for all stakeholders; individuals can get better and more accurate diagnosis and medical attention, the government spends less on health-related costs.
Clearly the various stakeholders present opposing values where virtues of ambition conflict virtues of honesty and respectfulness. In considering various ethical frameworks ultimately utilitarian ethics provides the most suitable framework, in particular that which agrees with the freedom principle, suggesting that everyone is free to strive for their own pleasure as long as it is not at the expense of others (Mill). Therefore all the various stakeholders have individual responsibilities. Government legislation should induce honesty and openness of what data is used and sold by companies to the extent that it does not affect performance and growth. Companies themselves should provide measures to protect personal privacy and provide sufficient cyber security. Furthermore, consumers themselves must take action in considering where disposable income is channelled and take more responsibility for their own actions in storing data online.