A friend of mine recently created a trust as part of a plan to manage her estate. Determining what pieces of your life have value and to whom is complicated and often unpleasant work. A certain dish or picture may not be valuable to someone outside the family, but can be extremely valuable to those who know its meaning and history. Like our physical estates, most of us are building an online estate of pictures, music, purchases, banking and a social network. We don’t think of our online assets in estate terms, but trust me, Google and Facebook and many other tech companies do. So, what is your online estate worth?
Your personal information and online activity is so valuable, there are entire businesses whose sole purpose is to harvest that information. Google’s tool basically crawls the Internet and scrapes data so it can put information into a searchable format, which is extremely useful. However, Google and other companies are also crawling through your personal data, including Facebook, LinkedIn and online history to build a personalized profile about you. And you probably don’t even realize it.
Most online businesses, like Google, Facebook and Twitter, that offer a free product, get paid through advertising. While there is value in personalized and targeted advertising, most of us don’t realize how extensively and aggressively Google and Facebook and other tech companies are following us online and offline to gather personal, identifying information. Google and Facebook use surveillance technology that tracks everything you do, like it or not.
If you’re using an Android phone, Google will not only know what websites you visit online, but also where you go every day, what music you listen to, what places you frequent and more. That all sounds harmless if you have nothing to hide, as they say, but let’s look at a very real scenario. Google uses its technology to gather information for advertisers. It then sells that information to advertisers and other organizations. One of the latest ways Facebook and Google are making money is to sell user data to employers who are wanting to not only recruit new employees, but also track current ones.
Let’s say you’re thinking about changing jobs. Google can tell your employer where you’ve been interviewing and how aggressively you’re looking, based on your email, LinkedIn and location data (which cannot be turned off on Android phones). You may not have posted on Facebook or LinkedIn that you’re looking for a job, but your employer may still know, based on the data gathered by Google and Facebook.
Alternatively, maybe you’re thinking of having a baby or in the early stages of pregnancy. Google will pair data with Alexa, plus your Android phone to determine that you’re shopping for baby clothes, scheduling doctor visits, etc. What if Google then shares all that information with an employer? Could you be passed over for a promotion? Or if you’re interviewing for a job, could they use that data to eliminate you from the candidate pool?
The smartphone and in-home devices such as Alexa and Nest have created unprecedented amounts of personal data that is being scraped, harvested and analyzed every day. More importantly, it’s being traded and sold among advertisers, employers, governments and even law enforcement.
However, algorithms are built on man-made assumptions and biases. Going back to the employment scenario, what if the algorithm is wrong? What if in the scenario above you weren’t looking for a job, but searching areas for a new home or school? Or what if you were planning to have a baby, but found out you couldn’t or had a tragedy like a miscarriage? Your employer may make employment and promotion decisions about you based on an algorithm that got it all wrong. Now are you concerned about privacy and the harm man-made algorithms could do without ethical checks and balances?
Right now, people are giving away their data for free. But what is our personal information worth? More than nothing – because without your data, Google, Facebook and many other tech companies would collapse. Therefore, it’s surely worth more than nothing.
People need to treat their online assets with as much care and value as we do our physical assets. Companies are making billions of dollars off your personal identity. Perhaps a new model is in order where consumers get to control their own online estates and decide who gets what assets, just like a physical estate.