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A young person’s perspective on data capture: is privacy really all that?

Student Oliver Sampson, 18, gives his views on the increasingly common necessity of giving away personal data online and how young people will have to deal with this fact in a digital future

As a young person, most of my waking life is spent staring at a screen. Whether it’s my phone, laptop, work computer or TV, the only part of my life that’s resisted the move to a black display is the rare occasion I remember reading can be enjoyable too. Like most people my age, my phone is as integral to me as my left leg: it’s my map, alarm, train ticket, shopping centre and music collection. The technology that accompanies my existence is a fairy Godmother that makes life that bit more convenient.

As the technology I use becomes more complex and the things I use it for more extensive, the frequency of me sharing data has increased too. I do it for many reasons, like when I actively post information, (e.g. a photo to Snapchat), or consent to information being captured for the function of apps or for an improved online experience, (e.g. banking details for Google Pay or location for Citymapper). Naturally, not all data is created equally and some instances of data-capturing are less headline-grabbing than others. Amazon capturing my shopping data isn’t exactly groundbreaking; a platform requesting access to my contacts is unsettling though acceptable, and Cambridge Analytica selling data from 87 million social media profiles severs any trust I have with Facebook.

The signing over of personal data has actually been of great use to me. Google Maps’ ‘timeline’ feature allows me to see where I’ve been in case I forgot; YouTube figures out which videos I may want to watch through my search history, and the headphones I’m wearing as I write this blog are ones suggested to me by Amazon. Whilst privacy is valuable, so is convenience.

“Whilst privacy is valuable, so is convenience”

The irony is that whilst I am broadly comfortable ‘consenting over’ information to platforms for convenience, I’m paranoid about sharing too much information on social media. I was taught, like most people, to be cautious over the information I make public: I wouldn’t give my bank card to a stranger so why put my bank details online? I also wouldn’t hand over a map of my movements to a stranger, but location tracking allows exactly that. I turn off Snapmap, limit the public reach of my Facebook and value the control I have over my data; but this control isn’t always available to data I ‘consent away’. Whilst this sounds contradictory, often the only control you have over your data is simply a button at the end of thousands of words of terms and conditions.

Reading about Facebook’s proximity with Cambridge Analytica worries me about how much data I’m ‘consenting away’ to Facebook and who else has access to it. If the consequences weren’t so frustrating for my daily life, then my friends and I would’ve deleted Facebook already. These consequences would be losing easy contact with family members who only use Facebook and moving to other platforms, like Whatsapp and Instagram, that are also operated by Facebook and request the same data. I feel ‘trapped’ between consenting my data into the information black hole of Facebook or facing frustration by leaving it. Data is increasingly a prerequisite for using services at all, so the ‘choice’ I face is between foregoing privacy to use these platforms, or vice-versa.

“The ‘choice’ I face is between foregoing privacy to use these platforms, or vice-versa”

If you relied upon a single ecosystem of technology, such as Apple — an iPhone, Apple Music, iPay, an iWatch, Apple Maps, and a Mac — and to continue use of this ecosystem, you had to consent to your passport details being accessed, would you do it or lose access to these products that are integral to your life? This is now the ‘choice’ users face — value their privacy and be locked out of technology so vital in today’s world or enjoy the convenience of technology in exchange for intimate details about their life no longer being exclusively theirs.

I think that the corporate-consumer relationship has shifted — where once customers could withhold their information from companies being too nosey, now companies, becoming giants and monopolizing the industry, can force this unpalatable ‘choice’ on consumers knowing most will forfeit their data to continue using the technology they need to enjoy good lives.

The notion of anyone knowing your exact movements was unthinkable 30 years ago. Now, many judge that information as worth capturing to better our experience online. Will passport or bank details, that are today seen as confidential, be fair game 30 years from now? As technology grows alongside me, the data I am willing to ‘consent away’ could become increasingly intrusive, and as technology companies merge, suffocating alternatives, and exercise their user’s reliance to push the window of acceptability further, the question must be asked: will my generation be the first to surrender privacy all-together?

“Will my generation be the first to surrender privacy all-together?”

Governments have decided the solution to data capture is the right to erasure, which gives users the right to have their information, held by companies and public bodies, deleted on request or after a certain time frame. Companies are increasingly constructing digital footprints of users, comprised of who we are, where we live, the people we talk to, the places we visit, the things we buy, the politicians we like and dislike, detailing everything that defines us. Surely the weapon to combat this is a tool to wash that footprint away forever?  Perhaps the right to erasure will be the civil right of the 21st century or perhaps technology companies will successfully lobby against such laws and users will expect ever-more tailored experiences online and so ‘consenting away’ private data will become irreversible.

Whatever happens, I, as a user of technology, will have to acclimatise to the ‘choice’ between having privacy and convenience as it becomes an increasingly common one to make. Given the care-free attitude towards consenting data away I’ve had so far, I doubt I’ll ever find a line I’m not willing to cross to have a personalised online experience. I have already allowed platforms access to my contacts, location, browsing history, bank details and more - so why would I stop now? Is privacy really all that?