Even when we know that our online behaviour is being tracked and that our personal data is being used for various reasons, including to market services and products, more often than not, we continue to click through and agree. We go a step further when we actively share personal details about our lives on social media. New, disruptive technologies have substantially changed the way that personal data can be used and commodified. In a time when sharing and use of personal data is so extensive, regulators, companies and individuals have all been grappling with the implications on privacy.
The "Privacy Paradox"
Sharing location data with an app can give you exact directions, using a fingerprint or facial recognition technology to (un)lock your mobile phone can help keep it secure, applying machine learning technology to health issues can potentially improve outcomes and treatments, and posting pictures about your exotic vacation can make you feel better than your friends. Companies, big and small, rely on personal data to understand their customers, predict customer behaviours, conduct marketing, provide tailored services, and (much!) more.
Privacy Challenges in New Technologies
How can new technologies affect our lives? In addition to the obvious answer that many technologies can make our lives easier, more fun and, arguably, better, use of certain new technologies may affect our lives in ways we don't necessarily envisage.
When we let apps, smart speakers, or wearable electronic devices, such as smartwatches or fitness trackers, collect information about our health, we expect to receive guidance about what to eat, how to work and how to improve our long term running. But what happens if this information is sold to insurance companies? Our insurance premiums may be much higher if the insurance company knows that we have a hard time running five kilometres in less than an hour and that we have a weakness for donuts. On the other hand, by using certain devices that track our driving, our premiums may be cheaper (provided, of course, that we are good drivers and are not busy checking our phones while driving). These issues raise questions about the extent to which individuals should be aware or have a choice about additional uses of personal data they voluntarily provide in order to receive a certain service. Can companies use the personal data received to improve their services and develop new services? Under which circumstances should the government be permitted to receive personal data about us (without our knowledge and consent)?
Technology has a lot of promise. For example, biometric data, like fingerprints and facial recognition data, can be used to authenticate identity. This could potentially be a great solution for preventing identity theft – after all, no one can steal your fingerprints. Except for the fact that sometimes they can. In August 2019, a platform storing dactyloscopic (fingerprint) data, facial recognition data, face photos of users, unencrypted usernames and passwords, logs of facility access, security levels and clearance and other personal details of staff, suffered a breach, exposing 28 million records of over a million people. This data in the hands of criminals is not a happy thought. After all, you can't very well replace your fingerprints after they get stolen.
Facial recognition technology, based on facial data, a type of biometric data, is gaining a lot of traction in recent years. Face recognition payment is offered in various places in the US and China. Just smile at the camera and your credit card will be charged. There's no denying that this is very cool. It becomes slightly less cool when the camera can also recognize that you're in a bad mood, sells that information to advertisers, and uses that information to serve you targeted ads offering you ice cream. Facial recognition technology is also used in the medical world, for example to trace genetic diseases, and in airports and other public places to track criminals. The use of facial recognition by governments and enforcement agencies has
been controversial in different areas in the world. China is using facial recognition technology widely, and the London police recently announced that cameras with facial recognition technology will be deployed throughout the city. On the other hand, various cities in the US banned the technology, and the EU is considering banning it from use in public places for 5 years. Given the potential benefits and effectiveness of the technology and the risks caused by the fact that facial recognition is usually still not accurate enough, the controversy is understandable.
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