Why Shouldn't Anyone Need To Worry About Data Collection?

Ethan
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Before we get into the article, I wanna clarify that I am by no means trying to defend the actions of Google, Facebook, or any other big tech company, and this post is not sponsored. 


I strongly believe in the right to privacy, and I think the actions of these big tech companies are not only intrusive but highly immoral and unethical primarily because they go about data collection in such a non-transparent manner. 


You could argue that all of their policies are laid out in their privacy policy and terms of service, but really, the average person was never aware of their activities until things went wrong and it became international headlines. 



The Truth About Big Tech Data Collection


So, I am all for efforts like Apple’s app tracking transparency and media that educates people about what exactly these companies track and how exactly they make money. But putting aside the right to know and the right to choose whether you want to be tracked or not, I don’t really care that Google or Facebook tracks me. 


In fact, I would even go as far as saying that I like it. I like that when I search for a camera stand on Amazon and don’t find what I’m looking for, I get targeted Google ads about camera stands from Adorama and B&H Photo that do match my criteria. 


I like that when I get into a rabbit hole about traveling to Singapore or buying a new laptop, all of the content that I get fed is relevant to what I’m interested in. Of course, 5 or 10% of the time, Google and Facebook miss the mark and they show me ads that I’m not actually interested in or recommend videos that aren’t even relevant. 


But for the most, I would say that they’re spot on and only improving. I would even take this one step further and claim that the average person also feels the same way. They hate that these companies are so untransparent about their data collection activities, but they’re also fans of the services and perks themselves. 


This would explain why services from these companies are so popular despite people not being huge fans of the companies behind them. Something else to note is Apple App Tracking Transparency opt-in rates. 


When the service first launched in 2021, 96% of people opted out. But month after month, more and more people have opted in. In fact, the opt-in rate currently stands at an impressive average of 34%. So, here’s the side of big tech tracking that no one ever talks about. 



THE CASE FOR DATA COLLECTION

Starting off with what data is being collected by these big tech companies, this is ironically an extremely easy question to answer because the answer is absolutely everything. Things that you can conceptualize, they’re probably collecting. Things that you can’t conceptualize, well, they’re probably collecting that too. 


Just as a quick run down, this includes things like search history, device type, location, engagement metrics, biometrics, metadata, cookies, contact info, interests, hobbies, political views, you name it. The thing to note though is how this data is actually being used. 


One of the biggest misconceptions regarding big tech data collection is that big tech sells your data to partners and other companies, which a lot of people understand in a literal sense. They think that someone like Verizon comes up to Google, pays them a million dollars, and walks away with a massive spreadsheet of the entire life history of millions of people, but that’s not how it works. 


In reality, these companies basically never hand over your data to other companies, not because they’re saints and they care about your privacy, but because that’s simply not in their best interest. Just think about it, if Verizon is able to buy all the data they need in one go, why would they need to come back to Google or Facebook? 


The answer is that they wouldn’t. As such, Google and Facebook are very much incentivized to keep your data close to their chests. And what they do instead is sell the rights to advertise to you based on various factors. 


For example, Verizon would be able to tell Google what keywords they’re targetting, what demographics they’re targetting, and what their ideal customer looks like. And it would be up to Google to actually find the right people and show them Verizon’s ads or promotions or whatever. 


Verizon doesn’t actually know any specifics about the people that Google is advertising to unless these individuals convert. As such, it’s only the companies that are actually collecting the data that hold the keys to your data. 


And something I want to note is that this is by no means a new practice. It’s been going on for thousands of years. For example, if you were a stonemason thousands of years ago, you would look to promote your services to people who were building new homes. 


If you were a baker, you would look to promote your services at the market where people are looking for food. The only difference today is that modern advertising giants can accomplish this at a scale and level of granularity that’s never been seen before. 


But, honestly, even that is not a difference. The scale and granularity of advertising has always been going up. From the days of word of mouth at Times Square to the days of newspapers that were handed out to certain demographics to the days of modern television with pinpoint accuracy on viewer demographics. 


For millennia, companies and advertisers have been on an endless pursuit to optimize advertising spend, and modern big tech is simply the latest evolution of that effort. 


Something else that I wanted to note is that this effort has not only led to better advertising but better everything. This is the primary reason that the UI and experience on apps and services like Chrome, YouTube, Instagram, Snapchat, and TikTok are so good. 


These companies have spent tens of billions optimizing every nook and crevice of their services in order to maximize user retention and engagement. The design principles and user engagement tactics that they discovered have become the industry standard for all apps and services. And this is what has made modern technology as great as it is. 


So, in an ideal world, if data was collected more transparently, I really see no issue in the practice. These companies aren’t actually selling our data. All they want to do is advertise to us as effectively as possible. 


And, their efforts have created some of the best tech we’ve ever seen. So, it’s really a win-win scenario in an ideal world, but the problem is that we don’t live in an ideal world which brings us into the pitfalls of the practice. 



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THE CASE AGAINST DATA COLLECTION

Like with most things, if data collection The Case Against Data Collection is used in the right manner, it can be a wonderful thing, but if it’s used in the wrong manner, it can be a nightmare. And I’m not even talking about big tech abusing their control and influence. 


Even if big tech stayed perfectly in their lane and only used data collection as a means to improve advertising and the user experience, there are massive risks to be aware of. For starters, regardless of how secure or safe these companies’ servers and data centers are, it’s not exactly a great idea to store the entire world population’s data with any one of these companies. 


Cyberattacks and data breaches are very much a real threat and they happen at these big tech companies as well. 


In early 2023 for example, Google Fi experienced a data breach of 37 million users. And Facebook just recently paid a fine for a data breach involving over half a billion people. And that’s the case with these tier 1 companies themselves. 


If we move down a tier, these sorts of instances are way more common. T Mobile for example has experienced 8 data breaches since 2018 alone. 


T-Mobile Hacks


These are the main reasons that identity theft, credit card fraud, and spam calls are so common nowadays. 


Bad actors can attack these treasure troves of data and come out the other side with gold. But honestly, data breaches are the least of your concerns when it comes to the risks of data collection. After all, banks and credit card companies are well aware of the threat and they’re very much willing to work with you to resolve any such issue. 


One issue that cannot be solved, however, is echo chambers. All of these services and apps are structured in a way to maximize user engagement and retention meaning that it’s in their best interest to pander to your thoughts and beliefs. Aka, they’ll basically never show you something that you don’t like to see. 


This is why different people can search the same thing on Google but get completely different results. While it’s nice to get tailored search results from a user perspective, it’s terrible from a macro perspective. 


This leads to a society that’s never exposed to differing viewpoints and opinions and the creation of massive echo chambers. Obviously, the most notable example of this is with politics. This is the main reason that politics are so divisive nowadays. 


Not to mention, the whole can of worms that is targetted political advertising. But the effects stretch far beyond just politics. In general, this largely reduces the likelihood that you find something new that doesn’t align with what you already believe. 


For example, maybe you’re convinced that Teslas are the best EVs on the market. But, if you tried a Rivian or Lucid, it’s possible that you might even like those more, but you might not even get to the stage of trying those because Google and Facebook consistently showed you articles and videos about why Teslas are the best. 


THE CASE AGAINST DATA COLLECTION


This sort of pandering makes it much harder for us as a society to try new things and evolve from all perspectives. 


And that brings us to the last major pitfall of data collection which is government surveillance. Governments have always been behind the curve when it comes to tech but they’re finally catching up to the new industry. 


Google’s privacy policy screenshot


If you look closely at Google’s privacy policy, you’ll see that there are only 4 instances in which Google may share your data and one of those instances is at the government’s request. It should also be mentioned that the NSA has a history of accessing civilian data records and the FBI can hack into any webcam. 


So, it really doesn’t take much for this to cascade into the dystopia that was described in the book 1984. In fact, you can argue that that’s already how it is in Russia and China which now has more than 700 million surveillance cameras. 


So, as you can see, data collection can be used for a lot more than just feeding into capitalism and maximizing consumption. It can be used for some truly nefarious activities which brings me into the reality of data collection. 



THE REALITY OF DATA COLLECTION

It might seem like this whole drama with Google and Facebook is something that came about within the past 10 years, but in reality, people knew that this was an inevitability since day 1. 


Take this interview with Steve Jobs in 1981 for example. When Steve Jobs is questioned about whether computers could be used for bad, this is what he said. 




As you can see, he was of the camp that the pros of computers far outweighed the cons, but he wasn’t alone in this interview. Joining him was writer David Burnham who saw a far different future. 




When this was initially aired, people probably thought that only one of these individuals would end up being correct, but in retrospect, they were both correct as the comments have pointed out. 


On one side, computers and eventually data collection have become a tremendous tool that allows people to connect, create, and consume like never before. But, it has also come along with massive privacy risks and concerns regarding echo chambers and opinion manipulation. 


The only way to avoid this side of the reality is by rejecting both sides of the reality regardless of the intent or purpose, and honestly, I don’t think people are willing to make that sacrifice. 


As much as people love to complain about data collection, I think they’d be annoyed if they went to a new city and looked up restaurants on Google and ended up getting results for their home city. I think they’d be annoyed if they had to go back to typing out their name and address and credit card information and actually remember the new password every time they sign up for a new service. 



Wrapping Up

And as much as people hate ads, I think they’ll hate ads even more if they’re even less relevant. And those are just the examples that immediately come to mind. Without data collection, our entire experience with tech would get noticeably worse across the board. 


And the question is really: are you one of the few that not only criticize the practice but are also willing to make these sacrifices or are you more likely to just come to terms with both sides of the situation. I think you can guess which side I’m on but I would love to hear what you guys think. Let me know down below.

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