You are thinking of buying a pair of new running shoes. But you haven’t yet searched for shoes online, you haven’t discussed it with anyone, and neither have you watched or read anything even remotely connected with running. And yet, you begin to see ads for sneakers or suggestions to follow running pages in your social media newsfeed.
The first time you notice this, you find it uncanny, but brush it off as coincidence. And then it starts to happen with impressive regularity – you begin to see recommendations, ads, or content directly related to the courses that you were thinking about signing up for, the holiday destinations you want to visit, the weight loss programs you want to try, the specific ergonomic office chair you would like for your study, the car you are aspiring to buy, memes and videos that appeal to your sensibilities and sense of humour, political posts that are exactly aligned with your worldview.
But here’s the thing: these perfectly timed ads and posts no longer shock us as we have come to accept this eerie mirroring of our innermost thoughts as a mysterious, yet inevitable part of our online experience. We aren’t sure why exactly it happens, but we have come to normalise it anyway.
Yet, we give trust freely in the online world. Most of the time a convenience-enhancing or life-improving service comes at the condition of submitting our personal details. And we don’t think twice. We don’t know what they do with our information or who they share it with. Yet we promptly trade our privacy and sensitive information in exchange for the delightful convenience, and frictionless, magical online experiences.
The popular belief around this phenomenon is that “they” are listening to us as we go about our lives, using the microphones on our phones. But the truth is perhaps far more sophisticated – and sinister.
“They” – social media platforms, search engines, large brands, e-commerce websites, news and entertainment sites, and influential content creators are able to serve us exactly what we need – or we believe we need – because of the digital footprints we leave behind in hundreds of obvious as well as barely noticeable ways.
As digital citizens, it’s by now ingrained in us that our online experiences should be smooth, seamless, and intuitive: “Recommend what I should watch next, tell me what to buy and whom to follow, show me posts, news articles, pictures and videos that I can agree with.” However, when a social media platform or an e-commerce giant eases the decision-making process for us, when smooth user interfaces pre-empt our next move and give us exactly what we want, when technology-led platforms eliminate friction from our online experiences, we are also trading in a fundamental thing: our privacy.
Every ‘Like’ and ‘Share’, every comment, every app we install, every ‘Agree’ button we hastily click, the T&Cs and cookies we accept without a second thought, topics we post about, websites we browse, places we travel to while using the GPS on our phones, things we search for, things we watch, things we buy, things we order on food delivery apps – every digital action translates to valuable data about who we are, what we like and dislike, and what drives us.
In simple terms, companies that monopolize digital spaces use cutting edge artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to create our digital avatars so to speak, based on our online behaviours and consumption patterns. The data that we voluntarily (and unknowingly) hand over in our digital lives allows companies to predict our needs, our wants, our aspirations, even our fears, biases, and insecurities with a great degree of accuracy.
The companies that harvest this data in turn share it with their advertisers to not just sell us products and services, but also shape our lifestyles, our tastes, our preferences, our beliefs, and by extension, our personalities in ways that are lucrative to them.
When we navigate the real world, we do it with care and caution. Our homes have doors and locks because we value our privacy and safety. We are careful not to share our personal, financial and health information with strangers, or for that matter, even friends. We expect doctors, banks, lawyers and therapists who hold intimate information about us to respect our privacy.
And yet, there is a paradox when it comes to our online behaviour; we give trust freely in the online world and cede control over our data, allowing large corporations to use our data for financial, or even political gain. Our privacy is the currency we trade in for convenience. And eventually our identities, our autonomy, and in many ways, our humanity itself.
In many ways, we lack options. When everyone else uses a service or a product, not opting to use it would mean inconveniencing our friends, families and work colleagues. It also makes us miss out on key social and cultural markers of our time. Good news is, there is still much we can do to protect our privacy. Balancing the benefits of digital media without becoming objects for sale ourselves begins with us taking control of our digital activities. Becoming conscious digital media users, critically querying the content we consume with regard to their source, motive, rigour, relevance and credibility, evaluating every action we take online, and our privacy settings, is where it starts. And the cycle of privacy protection is completed with strong, comprehensive policies and government legislation that compel digital companies to adhere to fair, transparent and safe data and privacy protection practices.
In our next post, we explore how to navigate digital spaces while retaining our privacy to the extent we can – while also demanding accountability from our governments and the companies that harvest our data.