The scary world of who owns our data

The scary world of who owns our data

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Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg answers questions at the European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium, May 22, 2018. (Reuters)

In an increasingly interconnected world, access to data, which offers opportunities for revenue streams and power, is hotly contested by companies and governments alike. And the recent controversy over the short video channel TikTok highlights a growing geopolitical dimension.

Data is to the 21st century what oil was to the beginning of the 20th. The new tycoons are not called Rockefeller, Hammer or Mellon, but rather Gates, Zuckerberg, Brin or Bezos. Like their predecessors, many of these have become generous philanthropists. This should, however, not detract from the fact that big data is big business — huge business really. He who owns the data gets access to coveted advertising revenue.

If anything, the coronavirus disease pandemic has upped the stakes in the big data game. As our lives and work situations have increasingly moved online, the Googles, Facebooks, Microsofts and WeChats of this world get ever greater access to and insights into our work, the way we live our lives, and our consumer preferences. 

In 2018, the spotlight fell on just how insecure our personal data is when we entrust it to big tech firms, as it became clear that Cambridge Analytica had harvested Facebook users’ personal data without authorization. This brought both regulators and activists to the fore. None of us can forget a contrite Mark Zuckerberg testifying in the US Congress or at the European Parliament. Cambridge Analytica may have gone out of business, but the debate persists.

The big tech companies, which blew all expectations out of the water during this earnings season, are accumulating ever more power, not just because we use them more frequently courtesy of our changing lifestyles, but also because they are very acquisitive, garnering ever greater market power. They may vow to be more careful with our data, as Google did when it promised the European Competition Authorities (ECA) it would keep DoubleClick’s data in a separate silo from its own after its acquisition of the internet advertiser in 2007. But, by 2016, the data had been combined across Google’s various platforms. 

Where it gets particularly tricky is when we give a device access to our most intimate data. The ECA are currently having a very close look at what Google’s proposed $2.1 billion acquisition of Fitbit might mean in terms of data security and competitive power. Google’s assurances that it will silo data have worn thin, given the DoubleClick experience. As for competitive power, EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager could not have put it more clearly: “Our investigation aims to ensure that control by Google over data collected through wearable devices as a result of the transaction does not distort competition.”

No wonder, then, that regulators are watching market strength and data protection with an eagle eye. Expect to see Messrs Zuckerberg, Bezos, Nadella and Pichai in front of lawmakers more frequently over the coming years.

However, it is not just the big companies that are after our data — governments are too. The debate on whether WhatsApp should open its encryption to law enforcement authorities in cases of suspected terrorism or other criminal acts is justified. The question is one of proportionality and boundaries. It has become particularly relevant in times of contact tracing. While we all understand the need to contain the coronavirus and the validity of a contact tracing app that informs us when we have been close to an infected person, this app is there for our personal protection and as a public health measure. The question remains who, in the end, will have access to our data and how much of it will really remain encrypted.

Like oil, data has a geopolitical dimension, which the recent controversy over TikTok highlights. The US is wary of the Chinese government having access to the data of US citizens and how that could be harvested to benefit Beijing. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to ban other Chinese-owned apps like WeChat for the same reason. President Donald Trump favors Microsoft’s proposed acquisition of TikTok. This gives rise to the question of what constitutes undue government pressure over mergers and acquisitions transactions.

Many people’s concerns over foreign government access to data and what that means for their influence may be valid. This brings us back to how foreign governments could influence voting and election behavior in any given country. Remember the controversy over Facebook, Twitter and the like in the context of the Brexit referendum and elections in the US, UK, France and Germany. 

Where it gets particularly tricky is when we give a device access to our most intimate data.

Cornelia Meyer

All of the above are very difficult issues. Technology has given us the freedom to communicate far and wide. It has enabled us to earn a living and socialize despite lockdowns. The flipside of the coin is that big companies and governments covet the data we gift them for their own purposes, be they commercial or to exercise power. 

As the market position and power of big tech companies get ever greater, we need to find ways to regulate or at least put in place protocols or gentlemen’s agreements regarding how our data is used. There are antitrust concerns, privacy concerns, and worries over how much access governments get to our data. This is virgin territory and the answers to these questions are not easy to find, but they need to be addressed urgently because more and more of our lives are going online. Data is not just the hot new commodity because it is big business; who has access to it has huge ramifications for our safety and security, as data increasingly defines who we are.

  • Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macroeconomist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources
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