Some Data Issues

Would you share your mother’s maiden name, your old phone number (back from the day when each household still had just one fixed telephone line with a five-digit number), or your childhood best friend’s name to all fellow passengers in a packed Wednesday morning metro? Or to just anyone on the street who asks? I bet you would think twice. Yet most of us give out these random details about ourselves to the nice people at Facebook  in exchange for hilarious things, such as certificates of what animals we were in our previous lives, which we can then post on our timeline! Who doesn’t like a fun questionnaire! Zuckerberg truly is a genius!

And yet there’s something weirdly familiar about these questions that the nonsensical quizzes ask, almost as if we’ve already been asked exactly the same things before… Was it the time we consulted our credit card over the telephone or when we forgot the iTunes password? Could it be that one of these security questions requests our mother’s maiden name? Our old phone number? The town where our parents met? What a coincidence, no?

It’s not a coincidence, it’s called collecting data*. Your data. The people in Silicon Valley did not make their fortunes simply by offering us a free platform to share pictures of our pets and the food we eat. Facebook, Twitter et al do not care about celebrating our birthdays in any way – they just want our birthdates. This, together with other profile data about us (what we like, what we click, our telephone numbers, email addresses, you name it), is immensely valuable for companies that pay big money to social media platforms in order to get their hands on it. In short: any additional information you  submit after you have opened your social media profile is purely used to gather data for marketing- and other purposes (actually applies to all information you submit, including the “required fields” you need to fill in to play ball). Be assured that not a single fun questionnaire and/or test on social media is there just for your entertainment. No  –  it is created to make money off your replies.

I rarely post anything on Facebook, yet it seems to know what I’m doing all the time. I used to think Yelp were some kind of genius for giving me such good recommendations for restaurants, always fairly close to where I live. Turns out, Yelp already have the data of restaurants I’ve searched and viewed in the past, how close these places were to my place and what kind of reviews other people gave them. They simply run a system to rank those variables and come up with a recommendation list for me. 

It is of course impossible not to give out some information about yourself if you live in the 21st century and own a mobile phone or a computer (more so if you happen to live in Belgium where the shops are never open, which means you have to shop online a lot, which means having to give your credit card details to many websites a lot). I do not suggest you become paranoid about this.  There are armies of intelligent civil servants working around the clock to find ways to keep our data safe and sound. There is, and should not be,  no turning back technological development. Tech has been really good for us and we need it. What is useful, though, is to be mindful of the tech giants and what their business is (hint: making lots of money off our data). Most people taking the metro would not know what to do with your information, but those who do, they know their stuff really well (this applies both to those who collect legit data and those who phish). 

I recently finished Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s book “Technically Wrong” , which I absolutely recommend you to read. It is mainly about the bias of the tech and the sexism and lack of perspective in Silicon Valley (we’ve seen a lot of that lately as Uber has been struggling with its court cases). It is also a no-nonsense reminder of how the tech business really works. No nerdy techie knowledge is required. The book gives very useful and fresh views to look at many of the apps and gizmos we use daily, usually without giving them a second thought. And if you’ve ever come across the slogan “we need more girls in tech”; this is the book that explains you why. Again, it’s not a rant against big tech corporations. “After all, most of us don’t hate tech. We love it. It’s time we demand that it love us back.” 

So here are the specs: Sara Wachter-Boettcher: “Technically Wrong – sexist apps, biased algorithms and other threats of toxic tech”. Published in October 2017 by Norton & Company. 

*It can also be phishing, which is a different exercise altogether. Anyone can launch a FB-contest/quiz/test to collect information from clueless users who love fun questionnaires, with the intention to hack peoples’ passwords and then go to town with their credit card- and other details and generally do lots of damage. Some of these masterminds have succeeded in forging my credit card twice, just by running algorithms.

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