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How Much Is Your Data Worth to Tech Companies? Lawmakers Want to Tell You, But It’s Not That Easy to Calculate

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This article was written by Samuel Lengen, Research Associate at Data Science Institute, University of Virginia, and originally appeared on The Conversation, a not-for-profit news site dedicated to unlocking ideas and knowledge from academic experts.

New proposed legislation by U.S. senators Mark R. Warner and Josh Hawley seeks to protect privacy by forcing tech companies to disclose the “true value” of their data to users.

Specifically, companies with more than 100 million users would have to provide each user with an assessment of the financial value of their data, as well as reveal revenue generated by “obtaining, collecting, processing, selling, using or sharing user data.” In addition, the DASHBOARD Act would give users the right to delete their data from companies’ databases.

As a researcher exploring the ethical and political implications of digital platforms and big data, I’m sympathetic to the bill’s ambition of increasing transparency and empowering users. However, estimating the value of user data isn’t simple and won’t, I believe, solve privacy issues.

Data collectors

The data collected by tech companies consists not just of traditional identifying information such as name, age and gender. Rather, as Harvard historian Rebecca Lemov has noted, it includes “Tweets, Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) likes, Twitches, Google (NASDAQ: GOOGL) (NASDAQ: GOOG) searches, online comments, one-click purchases, even viewing-but-skipping-over a photograph in your feed.”

An image of a keyboard with a button of a blue bird and a speech bubble.

Image Source: Getty Images

In other words, big data contains the mundane yet intimate moments of people’s lives. And, if Facebook captures your interactions with friends and family, Google your late night searches, and Alexa your living room commands, wouldn’t you want to know, as the bill suggests, what your “data is worth and to whom it is sold”?

However, calculating the value of user data isn’t that simple. Estimates on what user data is worth vary widely. They include evaluations of less than a dollar for an average person’s data to a slightly more generous US$100 for a Facebook user. One user sold his data for $2,733 on Kickstarter. To achieve this number, he had to share data including keystrokes, mouse movements and frequent screenshots.

Sadly, the DASHBOARD Act doesn’t specify how it would estimate the value of user data. Instead, it explains that the Securities and Exchange Commission, an independent federal government agency, “shall develop a method or methods for calculating the value of user data.” The commission, I believe, will quickly realize that estimating the value of user data is a challenging undertaking.

More than personal

The proposed legislation aims to provide users with more transparency. However, privacy is no longer solely a matter of personal data. Data shared by a few can provide insights into the lives of many.

Facebook likes, for example, can help predict a user’s sexual orientation with a high degree of accuracy. Target has used its purchase data to predict which customers are pregnant. The case garnered widespread attention after the retailer figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did.

Such predictive ability means that private information isn’t just contained in user data. Companies can also infer your private information, based on statistical correlations in the data of a number of users. How can the value of such data be reduced to an individual dollar value? It is more than the sum of its parts.

What’s more, this ability to use statistical analysis to identify people as belonging to a group category can have far-reaching privacy implications. If service providers can use predictive analytics to guess a user’s sexual orientation, race, gender and religious belief, what is to stop them from discriminating on that basis?

Having been let loose, predictive technologies will continue to work even if users delete their part of the data that helped create them.

Control through data

The sensitivity of data depends not just on what it contains, but on how governments and companies can use it to exert influence.

This is evident in my current research on China’s planned social credit system. The Chinese government plans to use national databases and “trustworthiness ratings” to regulate the behavior of Chinese citizens.

Google’s, Amazon‘s and Facebook’s “surveillance capitalism,” as author Shoshana Zuboff has argued, also uses predictive data to “tune and herd our behavior toward the most profitable outcomes.”

In 2014, revelations about how Facebook experimented with its feed to influence the emotional state of users ended in a public outcry. However, this instance just made visible how digital platforms, in general, can use data to keep users engaged and, in the process, generate more data.

Data privacy is as much about big tech’s ability to shape your personal life as about what it knows about you.

Who is harmed

The truth is that datafication, with all its privacy implications, does not affect everyone equally.

Big data’s hidden biases and networked discrimination continue to reproduce inequalities around gender, race and class. Women, minorities and the financially poor are most strongly affected. UCLA professor Safiya Umoja Noble, for example, has shown how Google search rankings reinforce negative stereotypes about women of color.

In light of such inequality how could a numerical value ever capture the “true” value of user data?

The proposed legislations’ lack of specificity is disconcerting. However, even more troubling might be its insistence that data transparency will be achieved by revealing monetary value alone. Numeric assessments of financial worth don’t reflect data’s power to predict our actions or guide our decisions.

The DASHBOARD Act aims to make the business of data more transparent and empower users. However, I believe that it will fail to fulfill this promise. If lawmakers want to tackle data privacy, they need to regulate not just data monetization, but more widely address the value and cost of data in people’s lives.

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Claremont Courier – Mobile site

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One of Claremont’s more interesting demographic anomalies is that a near equal percentage of the city’s population—34,478 at the latest census—are under 18 years of age as are over 65.

Those numbers—18.5 percent minors and 16.5 percent seniors—don’t often interface; The kids are busy being kids, and the older folks are busy staying active and healthy, and generally socializing with their peers.

Claremont, with its robust senior services and award-winning public school system, has long looked to create mutually beneficial opportunities to bring these groups together. Among them is the popular senior lunch program at the Joslyn Center and Blaisdell Community Center.

And now a new program, “Teen Techies,” has tapped into the technological knowhow of the town’s youth to benefit those that are perhaps most challenged by operating the smartphones, tablets and laptops so crucial to getting along in the 21st century.

“There’s always going to be old folks who haven’t kept up with technology, and there’s always going to be kids who are on the cutting edge of this stuff,” said 30-year Claremont resident Mike Johnston, 70.

“You put together the people with a need with the people with the skills and time to help out, and I hate to use a cliché, but it’s a win-win.”

Mr. Johnston, a retired sales and marketing executive from the financial services sector, has been instrumental in making fellow seniors aware of the Teen Techies program. He’s been part of the Mac Club, which meets on the second Monday of every month at the Joslyn Center, for some time.

“When I heard about [Teen Techies] I said, ‘Oh my God. Why didn’t any of us come up with this?’ It’s just such a good idea,” he said. “We’re sort of in the position of the kindergartener or first-grader. We don’t have the quick minds. With these kids it’s what they grew up with. They don’t have to learn it; it’s in their DNA.”

Frida Lopez, a 15-year-old junior at Claremont High, has helped out at the two Teen Techies events that have taken place thus far. “It was really fun being able to help them out with their technical issues,” she said. “Some of the seniors didn’t know basic stuff, like how to update their phones or delete apps.”

She was pleasantly surprised by the seniors’ general sense of fun. “I noticed that some of them made a lot of jokes and they really had a good sense of humor,” Frida said. “They laughed a lot. They were so positive.”

Brandon Brown, 24, has been a youth activities coordinator for the city of Claremont for four years. Getting teen volunteers wasn’t a problem, he said. Claremont High School’s Youth Activity Center (the “YAC”) already has an enthusiastic group of teen volunteers, and they jumped at the chance to help out local seniors.

“They’re always willing,” Mr. Brown said, “especially when it’s something new that they haven’t done before.”

Mr. Brown was pleased to witness the connections made at the Teen Techies workshops. “Some of the seniors came back and asked for those same volunteers at the second one,” he said. “It’s like a friendship after that, and it’s nice to see.”

“We are just so incredibly grateful that they are helping us with this stuff,” Mr. Johnson said. “I know how much brain power is in this city,” Mr. Johnson said. “We’re getting folks who can actually help us on a one-to-one basis. They’re not going to solve the entire senior community’s problems with technology, but this is one more tool in the toolbox, and I’m excited to see this.”

The intergenerational interface is also evident at the city’s senior lunch program. The many volunteers that serve lunch at noon and 11:30 a.m. every weekday at Blaisdell and Joslyn, respectively, are sometimes accompanied by their children, grandchildren or nieces and nephews. It’s a great way to teach kids service, and the seniors that benefit are always glad to see the youngsters.

Margaret “Margo” Lopez (no relation to Frida), 74, has been volunteering with the city’s senior lunch program at Blaisdell since she moved to Claremont three years ago. She had a special guest helper on the day the COURIER talked to her: one of her 12 grandchildren, 10-year-old Leah, a sixth-grader.

“I’ve been eating, and the food’s really good, and I had Starbuck’s today,” Leah said. When asked what the best part of volunteering with her grandmother had been, she was quick to answer: “Ice cream. And I always like coming here with grandma because she’s so nice.”

“I love it here,” Ms. Lopez said. “The people here are just different kinds of people, with their jobs and stuff, and you know, you want to help them.”

Ms. Lopez’ enthusiasm for helping out her fellow seniors is something she plans on continuing “as long as I can move,” she said. “It does something to me.”

Claremont serves full-course nutritious meals Monday through Friday to adults ages 60 and over for a suggested donation of $2 per person at the Joslyn Center and Blaisdell Community Center. To learn more about Claremont’s senior lunch program, visit the Joslyn Center at 660 N. Mountain Ave., call (909) 399-5488, or click on ci.claremont.ca.us and search “senior nutrition program.”

The next Teen Techies event will take place from 3:30 to 5 p.m. at Claremont High School’s Youth Activity Center, 1717 N. Indian Hill Blvd., on September 17. After that it will be held every third Tuesday through December 12.

—Mick Rhodes

mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

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