A Trojan horse in the room

anavic's picture
Ana Victoria Pérez Rodríguez, has a Phd. in Social Studies of Science and Technology and a Master degree in Science Communication. She is currently research project manager at HOPLITE SOFTWARE, a Spanish technology company. Since 2008 she directs 3CIN Foundation a non-profit organization specialized in promoting science and technology among society. She has also collaborated with Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation through the Spanish National Foundation for Science and Technology as a member of the expert's committee for the evaluation of public engagement policies, and as a consultant for the design and launching of the National Science News service SINC. Her research interests focuses on RRI institutional implementation, science policy, science evaluation and open science as well as the analysis of public engagement processes. Disclaimer: The views expressed are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the project.

It’s no secret that one of the main commercial axes for technology companies is having access to user data and online behaviour. Big Data analysis turns data into gold for all kind of purposes, smoothing the path for selling customized products and services. On the contrary, in an increasingly connected society, citizens give this information almost unconsciously by the mere fact of accessing a social network, downloading the newest app or logging in the latest trendy online service.

To make things worse, new smart connected devices that seem to make our lives easier, function in many cases as a Trojan horse used to capture huge amounts of personal information regarding our behaviours, tastes, hobbies, purchasing power, etc, that once added, allow not only drawing very precise individual profiles but much, much more: smart but nosey televisions that warn buyers to discuss personal matters in front of their TVs at their own risk, children dolls classified as hidden espionage devices by government regulators, biometric data used to unlock your phone (aka your face) available to third-party apps, websites that record your every keystroke or car sharing services that track your every move, even when your ride has finished. Virtually none of these matters were perceived as a critical issue when the MAPPING project started almost 4 years ago, but they are a sad reality today.

Although efforts have been made in recent years to alert citizens regarding irresponsible behaviours, individuals that buy smart devices without knowing their all their less advertised features, subscribe for new services and products without reading terms and conditions; that automatically close warning pages about the use of cookies; that don´t know or care to reconfigure their smartphone's privacy preferences, are still a huge majority. 'Bad practices' seem to be well established, even among those known as digital natives. Are they the ones to blame or is it just that the game is rigged?

After ten years of studies, the current Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and author of It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, Danah Boyd, reveals what has been frequently remarked by critics of the digital native concept: being born in the internet era does not automatically capacitates you to understand, interact or make good decisions regarding technologies, and lots of practice and learning is still required. What chance do the rest of us have then?

But what Boyd's research has also shown is that privacy is not a renounceable right for youngsters. It seems that lack of knowledge or even care does not completely explain citizens’ excessive exposure. It also seems that tech companies are willing to make your whole virtual experience unbearable and tiresome rather than letting your data go. What other reason may explain why it is mandatory to facilitate your credit card number when downloading a free app?

Privacy concern is spreading, reaching even the most 'techy' environments in which a relatively marginal concept from the 90's has been recovered to confront new challenges: the Privacy by design approach, that introduces ethics into the equation reminding the industry that just because something is feasible or profitable, it doesn´t mean it is necessarily good. And as it becomes more and more difficult each time for individuals to exert control over their personal data, an increasingly number of administrations, institutions and citizen proactively require embedding privacy into the design of new technologies.

However, as in any transcendent question for the future, education should play a central role in order to raise awareness. It is extremely desirable that a 21st century citizen knows what are the intricacies of Internet, which business models are employed by technology companies with which we relate on daily basis and what are the implications of those small decisions we face every day in digital environments.

Since Privacy is nowadays the exception rather than the rule, addressing this problem requires the participation of society as a whole: the implication of companies, which must be pushed to behave ethically; engineers and system designers, who must integrate privacy principles in technology design; politicians, who must legislate to protect our privacy; and a great deal of effort from parents and teachers who educate youngsters, because in the end, as the African proverb goes "it takes a village to raise a child".