The Data Horse Trade

It is often said that learning never stops and a perfect appendix to that at this juncture is development in computing is always in flux. All of the major tech players and startups with names we don’t know yet are working away on some or all of the new major building blocks of the future. And these in no particular order are - artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, robotics and drones, smart homes, self-driving cars, digital health, and wearables.

All of these things have dependencies in common. They include greater and more distributed computing power (cloud computing), new sensors, better networks, smarter voice and visual recognition, and software that’s simultaneously more intelligent and more secure.

It is expected that one end result of all this work will be that the technology - the computer inside all these things, will fade into the background. In some cases, it may entirely disappear, waiting to be activated by voice command, a person entering the room, a change in human physiology, a shift in temperature, or a motion change. All these are predictions the brilliant futuristic Science writer Arthur Charles Clarke predicted several decades ago. Your entire home, office, and car will be packed with these waiting computers and sensors. But they won’t be in your way, or perhaps even distinguishable as tech devices.

Seemingly capturing sensitive data without any tangible interface looks rather appealing on the surface. However, we all know how these same big techs behind the technology will want to profit in their endeavors. Take for example the wild and messy world of real-time bidding, a hugely popular approach to digital advertising and part of the lifeblood of companies like Google and Facebook. Let's run you through how it works: Each time a smartphone user opens an app or website that shows ads, their device shares data about that user to help show them a targeted ad. The advertiser with the highest bid for the available ad space wins.

The data can go to dozens or even hundreds of companies for each auction. Google says it transmits the data of American users to about 4,700 companies in total across the world. Each “broadcast” — as they are called in the industry — typically shares data about a person’s location —including “hyperlocal” targeting, according to Google's own pitch to advertisers — personal characteristics and browsing habits to help ad firms build user profiles. The ad industry also has a lengthy taxonomy that the networks use to categorize people, including sensitive labels like “anxiety disorders” and “legal issues,” or even “incest” and “abuse support,” according to a public document published by the ad network consortium that sets standards for the industry.

The complex and murky nature of the multibillion-dollar online ad business makes it difficult to know precisely what data Google is sharing about us. For what it’s worth, Google tends to broadcast fewer personal data about people than other smaller advertising networks do. But Google does make up the biggest share of broadcast data.

The sheer size of data broadcast each day is extremely difficult to fathom: It underscores the reality that we are surrounded by devices that collect information, ostensibly to make our lives better but which is then sold to the highest bidder. Smart speakers, fitness trackers, and augmented-reality glasses are just a few examples of the growing trend of ambient computing. The data collected by those devices can be exploited in ways we still don’t know yet.

There is the obvious conclusion that more data broadcasting means greater chances of misuse. Even when the purpose is as innocuous as advertising, ambient computing runs the risk of turning into ambient surveillance.

Addendum

Anyone that uses the internet without being naïve would know that they are going to be tracked because this is the sort of thing that could potentially end up making the free service, they are using profitable for the company that created it. However, just how much data does each major tech organization collect, and which of them tends to collect the most data? SecurityOrg recently analyzed some data to come up with answers to these very pertinent questions.

Based on this research, out of the top five tech companies which include Google, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Apple, Google collects the most data of all. The company collected just under forty data points per user. Receiving the dubious honor of second place on this list is Twitter, which collects twenty-four data points for each use. Amazon is not far behind, since it collects around twenty-three data points for each user that it has. We then see a pretty significant drop, with Facebook collecting fourteen and Apple collecting just twelve data points per user. These numbers should not be looked at to conclude that Apple is a lot better than Google relatively in the nefarious spying game. By and large, this quantity of data is still far more than the average user would be comfortable with.