A ticking time bomb: The real and present danger of the data economy | University of Oxford
Carrisa Véliz: 'It’s even a danger from the point of view of national security. It is a ticking bomb.'
Dr Carrisa Véliz: 'To collect as much personal data as possible and keep it for as long as possible is reckless. It’s even a danger from the point of view of national security. It is a ticking bomb.'

A ticking time bomb: The real and present danger of the data economy

Online data is far more of a problem than irritating personalised ads for embarrassing products and dodgy loans. The sheer scale of personal data circulating on the internet cannot be underestimated, and it is undermining equality and democracy, according to a new book from Oxford’s Dr Carissa Véliz. She argues that we are now subjects of a powerful data world, which goes to the heart of economies and democratic government, and over which we have too little control. Privacy Is Power calls for the end to the data economy. Personal data, she argues, is not the kind of thing that should be allowed to be bought and sold.

We are now subjects of a powerful data world, which goes to the heart of economies and democratic government, and over which we have too little control

Every time you engage with tech, or tech engages with you, the data economy intrudes into your life, according to Dr Véliz, who warns about the vast amount of data now collected on everyone. It is not just your likes and dislikes, and your purchases, it is who your friends and family are, what time you get up in the morning, where you spent last night, how much money you have in the bank, whether you are unwell, how much you drink, how much you weigh, what you search for online. A virtual avatar of you can be created from every key stroke you make on your computer or your mobile phone, accumulating information about you. That data is then used to try to influence your behaviour - from what you buy to how you vote.

‘It is a perverse business model,’ says Dr Véliz. ‘We didn’t have a choice. If we wanted to have an email address or look at some content, we had to agree to give our data...no one explained the trade-off to us. By the time we realised what was going on, the system was already in place; we were told of the bargain we made after the deal was sealed.’

 By the time we realised what was going on, the system was already in place; we were told of the bargain we made after the deal was sealed

Personal data is a toxic asset, argues Dr Véliz. It is poisoning individual lives, by exposing us to harms such as identity theft, discrimination, public humiliation, and more. And it is poisoning society, by jeopardising equality and democracy. Citizens are not treated as equals, but on the basis of our data. We are shown different opportunities, charged different prices, and shown different pictures of the world, all on the basis of what our data says about us.

More action is needed to regulate data companies. Privacy is Power suggests several regulatory measures:

  • Ban trades in personal data;
  • Ban personalised content – it contains risks for democracy by fracturing the public sphere into individual spheres;
  • Implement fiduciary duties - to make sure our data can only be used in our own benefit and never against us.

But regulation will only be implemented when there is popular demand. If data were regulated appropriately, individuals would not have to spend much effort protecting their privacy. But, until we get there, it is important to protect your privacy.

First, because it can save you from bad experiences, such as unfair discrimination. If you have been denied a loan, a job, or even an apartment, it might be because of what is in your data file. Second, because protecting your privacy will also protect others. Your data contains information about other people. Third, because by protecting your privacy, you make a statement that you care about your own privacy. It creates public pressure for governments and companies to respect privacy and it creates a paper trail, so that regulators can punish institutions which do not comply with our data rights (e.g. if you ask them to delete your data and they don’t).

If you had been denied a loan, a job, or even an apartment, it might be on account of your data file

In her book, Dr Véliz maintains there are basic steps we can all take to resist the data economy. ‘Always change the defaults,’ she says. ‘And make sure you use the strictest privacy settings, so only your friends can access your information.

‘Choose privacy-friendly alternatives. Instead of Google Search, try DuckDuckGo, for example. Try to say ‘no’ to cookies. Ask companies to send you the data they have on you and then confirm they have deleted it.’

She maintains, ‘Some 92% of people have had a bad experience online related to privacy...The individual risks are considerable.’

Dr Véliz says, ‘To collect as much personal data as possible and keep it for as long as possible is reckless. It’s even a danger from the point of view of national security. It is a ticking bomb.’

‘Before the Second World war, the Netherlands kept careful records of its population’s religious affiliation. It meant that the Nazis, by looking through the registries, were able to locate and murder some 73% of the Jewish population. But, in France, by contrast, where they did not keep such records for privacy reasons, it was not as easy to know who was Jewish, although the Nazis were able to find and assassinate some 25% of the Jewish population in France,’ says Dr Véliz.

Imagine if there were a new authoritarian regime, similar to the Nazis, and they had real-time data of your location, your face, your political beliefs, religious background, and so much more

‘Imagine if there were a new authoritarian regime, similar to the Nazis, and they had real-time data of your location, your face, your political beliefs, religious background, and so much more. During the Second World War, there was a largely unsuccessful attempt to set fire to the Amsterdam registry. The Dutch made two mistakes: they collected too much personal data and they didn’t have an easy way to delete that data in an emergency. We are making both of those mistakes on an unprecedented scale.’

Carissa Véliz is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy and the Institute for Ethics in AI, and a Tutorial Fellow at Hertford College, University of Oxford.

See Dr Véliz in conversation with Professor Rasmus Nielsen, Lead Researcher on the Oxford Martin Programme on Misinformation, Science and Media discussing Privacy is Power: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lVLMnRE0HY4&feature=youtu.be

See the book launch at the Institute for Ethics in AI: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=giQmtJ7LjMY