If data is the new oil, then the web is the world’s biggest gas station. Every day a few billion people visit this marketplace and trade some of their personal data for convenience. We tell Google Maps or Waze where we are and where we intend to go. We share (and sometimes overshare) with FaceTwitRedditGram the essential details of our lives that are too prized to keep to ourselves. We type into our favorite search engines the topics that we want to know more about. We share with Amazon or Walmart online the list of things we are willing and able to spend money on.
Sharing this information is easier than it’s ever been, and for most people, the trade-off between privacy and convenience is easy to justify. I remember getting irritated when every purchase at Radio Shack began with the clerk asking for your phone number. Back then, it was much easier to say no: you could expect that parting with that information would ensure that you’d be getting a sales call from that store or one of its “trusted partners”, and you weren’t really getting anything of value in exchange.
Trading Data For Convenience
In the digital economy, though, the trade is very different. You give up a lot more information – location, age, political bias, even data on health ailments – and in return, you get to browse this same information shared by your peers. However, the services on which you store this information aren’t providing the platform altruistically. They are actively mining this data so they or their partners can sell you something, whether it’s a product, a service, or in some cases, a political candidate. Make no mistake: When you interact with these free services, you aren’t just a user; you are the product.
There is some value in trading data for convenience. Just be sure you know what you’re sharing, and what you are getting in return. Pay attention to how much information you are sharing, and with whom. Cast a particularly suspicious gaze at those vendors or services who have recklessly handled or misused data in the past. Be aware of how this information might be used to sway your purchasing decisions or sway your political biases. And as always, opt out of any non-essential communications such as allowing these services to share your data with others.
This post was originally published in my Data Geek Newsletter.