Digital Ethics

Always watching, always listening. Be careful with your data

Posted on Updated on

The saying ‘Big Brother is Watching’ has been around a long time and typically gets associated with government organisations. But over the past few years we have a few new Big Brothers appearing. These are in the form of Google and Facebook and a few others.

These companies gather lots and lots. Some companies gather enormous amounts of data. This data will include details of your interactions with the companies through various websites, applications, etc. But some are gathering data in ways that you might not be aware. For example, take this following video. Data is being gathered about what you do and where you go even if you have disconnected your phone.

Did you know this kind of data was being gathered about you?

Just think of what they could be doing with that data, that data you didn’t know they were gathering about you. Companies like these generate huge amounts of income from selling advertisements and the more data they have about individuals the more the can understand what they might be interested. The generate customer profiles and sell expensive advertising based on having these very detailed customer profiles.

But it doesn’t stop there. Recently Google bought Fitbit. Just think about what they can do now. Combining their existing profiles of you as a person with you activities throughout every day, week and month. Just think about how various health and insurance companies would love to have this data. Yes they would and companies like Google would be able to charge these companies even more money for this level of detail on individuals/customers.

But it doesn’t stop there. There have been lots of reports of various apps sharing health and other related data with various companies, without their customers being aware this is happening.

What about Google Assistant? In a recent article by MIT Technology Review title Inside Amazon’s plan for Alexa to run your entire life, they discuss how Alexa can be used to control virtually everything. In this article Alexa’s cheif scientist say “plan is for the voice assistant to move from passive to proactive interactions. Rather than wait for and respond to requests, Alexa will anticipate what the user might want. The idea is to turn Alexa into an omnipresent companion that actively shapes and orchestrates your life. This will require Alexa to get to know you better than ever before.”  When combined with other products this will allow “these new products let Alexa listen to and log data about a dramatically larger portion of your life“.

Just imagine if Google did the same with their Google Assistant!  Big Brother isn’t just Watching, they are also Listening!

There has been some recent report of Google looking to get into Banking by offering checking accounts. The project, code-named Cache, is due to launch in 2020. Google has partnered with Citigroup and a credit union at Stanford University, which will administer the accounts. Users will be able to access their accounts through Google’s digital payment platform, Google Pay.

And there are the reports of Google having access to the health records of over 50 million people. In addition to this, Google has signed a deal with Ascension, the second-largest hospital system in the US, to collect and analyze millions of Americans’ personal health data. Ascension operates in 150 hospitals in 21 states.

What if they also had access to your banking details and spending habits? Google is looking at different options to extend financial products from the google pay into more main stream banking. There has been some recent report of them looking at offering current accounts.

I won’t go discussing their attempts at Ethics and their various (failed) attempts at establishing and Ethics Advisory Board. This has been well documented elsewhere.

Things are getting a bit scary and the saying ‘Big Brother is Watching You’, is very, very true.

In the ever increasing connected world, all of us have a responsibility to know what data companies are gathering on us. We need to decide how comfortable we are with this and if you aren’t then you need to take steps to ensure you protect yourself. Maybe part of this protection requires us to become less connected, stop using some apps, turn off more notification, turn off updates, turn off tracking, etc

While taking each product or offering individually, it may seem ok to us for Google and other companies to offer such services and to analyze our data to provide a better service. But for most people the issues arise when each of these products start to be combined. By doing this they get to have greater access and understanding our our data and our behaviors. What role does (digital) ethics play in all of this? This is something for the company and the employees to decide where things should stop. But when/how do you decide this? when do you/they know things have gone too far? how can you undo some of this work to go back to an acceptable level? what is an acceptable level and how do you define this?

As yo can see there are lots of things to consider and a vital component is the role of (digital) ethics. All organizations who process and analyze data need to have an ethics board and ethics needs to be a core part of every project. To support this everyone needs more training and awareness of ethics and what is acceptable or not.