Monday, December 11, 2017

Calculated Thought: Personal information is a commodity

February 15, 2017 by

Our generation is very educated, but we also face a tougher job market than our parents did, so, it’s befitting that we should learn how to make sound financial decisions in a changing economic landscape. Since many say we are entering a new knowledge economy driven by information, I’d like to shift the conversation from matters of money to the value of information.

CBC’s Marketplace recently aired a story where the producers developed a daily horoscope app that was free to download, with all the usual permissions requested from standard apps, and later showed users what information they had given up. It was unnerving to see that participants had shared their texts, phone logs, locations, and photos without their knowledge to the creators of the app.

Calculated Thought is a column dealing with student finances that is featured in every issue of Nexus.

It’s not just apps that peek at our data and sell it. Facebook, Google, and Microsoft do it; credit-card companies sell our purchasing information. It’s up to us to fight for transparency. If we are willing to accept a world where our online activities are tracked and monetized, we need to ask ourselves if mere access to online services is fair compensation for the use of our information.

Ethical questions were raised recently after reports that both the Brexit “leave” campaign and Donald Trump’s presidential campaign hired Cambridge Analytica, a UK firm that specializes in data analytics and audience targeting. Using a branch of psychological study known as psychometrics, the firm uses a data model that can predict personality profiles based on peoples’ digital footprints. It’s unclear what role they played in the success of these campaigns, but it’s noteworthy that the Cambridge University model—which Cambridge Analytica’s model is based on—can reportedly predict someone’s answers to private, personality-based questions better than that person’s partner could, using only data from 300 Facebook likes.

What was the value of this kind of information for Trump’s campaign? Depending on the sources, the number is between $5 million and $15 million. The data, however, was all kindly donated by folks like you and me.

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