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Privacy vs. Big Data

Chris CottrellMarch 4, 2015

Collecting data is the currency of the digital economy, but consumer advocates have been calling on big Internet firms to adopt business models that don't revolve around tricking users into forgoing their privacy.

Symbolbild Datenschutz
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

When it comes to the Internet, if you're not paying for a product, you probably are the product.

As data collection has become the currency of the digital economy, consumers are the ones generating the value. But many people are often oblivious to the access they grant some companies when they blindly accept their terms and conditions.

Privacy advocates at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona have been taking big Internet firms to task this week for what they regard as gross privacy violations and the exploitation of users' tendency to click "accept" without first reading a contract.

Experts say companies often hide seemingly nefarious permissions in the fine print, from reading text messages to monitoring a user's location and automatically turning off wireless devices' airplane mode.

"Make no mistake, there are no free apps," Mikko Hyppönen, chief research officer at Finnish anti-virus company F-Secure, said during a panel discussion on Monday. "All of these free offerings are monetizing themselves one way or another."

Strings attached

A vivid example of the strings attached to seemingly gratis programs was provided by Gary Kovacs, chief executive at AVG Technologies and a former CEO of Mozilla, during his keynote speech on Wednesday.

Kovacs explained how his 10-year-old daughter recently came up to him and asked about a user agreement that had popped up when she tried to download a video game.

Upon examination, Kovacs discovered that the company behind the game wanted to log his daughter's name, location and browser and chat histories.

"Somebody please explain to me why a massive worldwide company needs to collect this information on a 10-year-old girl," Kovacs said. "What do they do with it? Why don't they tell me what they do with it?"

The price of deception

Kovacs joined a chorus of entrepreneurs and security specialists who said such a practice of hoodwinking consumers into sharing their most sensitive data would eventually cut into companies' bottom lines as trust in those institutions eroded.

"Commercial pressure that we create with our buying power has to be an important factor that will let us scale these kinds of trust decisions," said Brian Hernacki, a chief architect at Intel's new devices group.

Bildergalerie Mobile World Congress Barcelona Spain
With ubiquitous internet technology, many are asking who is watching whomImage: Getty Images/David Ramos

But as long as there are only a few very powerful companies dominating certain sectors, there is little incentive for companies to heed the warnings of privacy advocates.

"As soon as the people have a kind of choice, you'll see that concentrating on privacy solutions will pay out," said Claus Ulmer, a group privacy officer at Deutsche Telekom.

Misgivings about online security led to some creative marketing ploys during the convention in Barcelona. One firm was advertising free Wi-Fi security by handing out blue business cards with the words, "I saw you watching porn yesterday!"

Fighting back

Feelings that nothing online is ever private - a sentiment confirmed by the revelations about widespread government snooping revealed by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden - have also given rise to businesses that specialize in blocking other companies and public entities from siphoning off personal data from unwitting consumers.

Switzerland-based Silent Circle was showing off some of its encryption-heavy mobile devices at Mobile World Congress, including the Blackphone - a sleek, Android-powered smartphone that automatically encrypts video and voice calls. It allows users to see exactly what permissions apps are using and gives them the option of selectively shutting off the ones they deem too intrusive.

It also puts a glass ceiling on top of apps from data miners such as Facebook, Google and LinkedIn, preventing them from tapping in-phone data.

Silent Circle emerged from what Bill Conner, the company's president and CEO, described as a fundamental lack of trust in the enterprises that provide the technology many people in the developed world use every day and in the governments responsible for regulating them.

"Every day that trust is being broken," Conner said. "Data collection goes against our DNA."