According to The Economist, oil is no longer Earth’s most valuable asset — it’s data, and we’re the source. Companies like Facebook and Google thrive off our personal information. In fact, nine of the world’s 10 most valuable corporations deal critically in big data. Whether it be Apple’s data-driven approach to cross-device integration or Amazon’s individually tailored advertisements, data is king in today’s day and age. Let’s explore what it means for everyday people to be the product of this new booming industry, and how companies like Facebook are exploiting the world’s citizens.
In Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to the U.S. Congress last year, he reluctantly revealed a good deal of previously unknown information that shed light on how Facebook actually turns a profit whilst providing a seemingly free service. The social network collects user information and builds links between different profiles, then catering ads for specific individuals based off what their indicated interests are. While most information gathered is voluntarily provided by users, many individuals aren’t even aware of what data Facebook stores, or if they’re allowed to have it removed from their servers. Facebook also stores information on individuals who don’t have an account in what they call shadow profiles, which can contain any number of data points such as photos, names and contact information.
All of this information is stored on Facebook servers and is regularly shared with other big data companies for varying reasons, one of which used the data to propel Donald Trump to an upset victory in the 2016 presidential election. Facebook’s data sales have been invaluable for the powerful few wishing to manipulate the masses. And while new laws are on the way to help regulate big data, security concerns may have already allowed for too much damage to contain.
Cybersecurity threats are on the rise, and they’re not going away any time soon. Data breaches can be extremely costly to companies. With average losses of $13 million per year, the price of bad security is nothing to scoff at. But the cost to consumers, the people whose information is actually being stolen, is considerably more serious. Those unfortunate enough to have their information stolen (of which there are many) could face identity theft, fraudulent bank activity and account holds. The rise of cyber attacks paired with increasing global reliance on personal information allows big data to exploit the average consumer for billions of dollars.
So what is to be done? Many experts call for the use of antitrust laws to break up big data companies much like Standard Oil was broken apart roughly a century ago. But data companies don’t check the necessary boxes to count as a legal monopoly as The Economist explains. New laws are the next logical solution. The Age of Information has fundamentally altered the way our society functions, and governmental regulations must reflect that. The longer the government waits to update its policies on digital monopolies, the more Americans will be exploited and exposed by the world’s richest corporations. Data protection is a human right. That right must be recognized.