Privacy was a hot issue at this year’s South by Southwest conference in Austin, TX. During one particularly heated panel discussion, privacy advocates squared off against advertisers about data harvesting and browser tracking practices. Both made compelling arguments for their cases, but the heart of the matter remains; should you be concerned for your privacy while browsing the web?
Data harvesting has been an ongoing focal point for the media in the past few years. Social media giants are constantly pushing the envelope to see how much they can scrape by with before getting slapped with a violation. Protests have been made and communities have logged complaints, but shockingly enough, these companies retain the majority of their user base. Recently, Facebook and Google have been thrust in the spotlight and criticized for their choices regarding user data, namely the choice to cultivate information on their users for targeted advertisements and other applications that remain a mystery. Despite the negative attention, Google ignored the opportunity to make an appearance at the SXSW panel to address privacy concerns. But why is there so much commotion over a seemingly harmless feature that is a minor annoyance at most?
Privacy risk or consumer’s best friend?
Current algorithms for targeted advertisements are only minimally effective. They are unable to make distinctions between something you buy for yourself or as a gift. Amazon’s recommendations seem to make haphazard shots in the dark based on similar products that other shoppers have recently viewed. While it can be argued that this service is only helpful a fraction of the time for consumers, it can be helpful when shopping around and exploring new brands and services. Of course, it is easy to opt out of targeted advertisements, but if you do choose to allow your information to be collected, are you safe?
“One of the real potential harms [is that] big data has huge potential to do great things…cool things,” said jay Stanley, a privacy attorney for ALCU. “But it also has the potential to invade our privacy by revealing things we didn’t choose to reveal.”
When security breaches and theft occurs, it’s often messy, leaving thousands affected with little recourse. Since there is no real precedent in place for these situations, compensation for impacted parties is minimal at most.
How should companies be regulated?
Arguments over when and how the government should step in to regulate internet practices caused a big stir. Berin Szoka, panelist and president of TechFreedom, argued that the government should enforce existing laws in favor creating new ones. He suggested that the FTC “punish unfair trade practices” when companies cross the line, and advocated government involvement when harm was present. Currently, privacy laws are in place in 46 states but not at the federal level.
“It’s not that smart yet, so it’s not that scary,” Stanley said. “But as it gets smarter it will get scarier, when you get to artificial intelligence levels that approach humans and they’re still reading your mail.”
So, who’s right? Is data harvesting a concern for you?