“What if we’re not getting a fair trade for our information?” asks Josh Neufeld in a new exploration of the bigger questions surrounding data privacy. (Added cool factor bonus: it’s a graphic novel). We’ve gotten used to giving services like Facebook or Gmail access to data about our lives. But as mobile devices have become ubiquitous and more and more of our devices collect data about our daily activities, it’s harder to keep track of what data about ourselves is available, who it’s available to, and how that data is used.
Josh Neufeld and Michael Keller teamed up to give people a chance to “understand our role in a world of big data” without the dense language and jargon that often characterize coverage of the data privacy conversation. Included in the comic are several down-to-earth explanations of the big issues of data privacy, often in the form of brief interviews with experts in the field. For instance, Keller and Neufeld talk with Liz Figueroa, a California state senator who sought to regulate Gmail’s access to consumer’s data when it was first released.
They also touch on many of the common arguments for data collection, including the oft-heard ‘nothing to hide’ argument: “If you have nothing to hide, you don’t have anything to worry about.” But this argument is complicated when you think about what kinds of companies might be collecting data on you. For instance, what about Progressive auto insurance tracking you while you drive? They promise lower rates but surely they must profit somewhere from this tracking. I might have nothing to hide, but what if by collecting millions of drivers’ habits, insurance companies can narrow down their profiles of risky drivers? This may start to negate the very purpose of insurance pools to begin with. It’s also not that hard to imagine this happening in other sectors, including health insurance, credit reporting, etc.
Perhaps the most important point the authors make in–light of the recent data privacy revelations by Edward Snowden–is about who gets to interpret data about you. It’s tempting to think that companies collect data and then directly intuit the truth about your driving habits, health habits, web browsing habits, etc, but the fact of the matter is that data always require interpretation. While I can look at the data collected about my life and explain the narrative to someone, what if someone else is looking at it? How will they interpret it? Who gets to tell the story of my life, and what data points are included or excluded from that story? When we realize that “big data” itself doesn’t tell a story, but that it is people using big data to tell a story, then we start to realize the importance of thinking about data privacy. And we start to wonder, are we really getting a fair trade for our information?
Check out the full comic at Al-Jazeera America, as well as their ongoing series about data privacy, Living with Data. If you’re interested in the ethical issues around data privacy, you might also want to read The Seduction of Transparency, Perspectives on Privacy and Human Flourishing, and The E-Book and the Surveillance Society. You might also enjoy the excellent documentary Terms and Conditions May Apply.