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Counting the cost of data as currency



As we become more reliant on the internet in almost every aspect of our lives, we are entering into a bargain the extent of which is difficult to comprehend.

Phone and laptop on deskEach time we go online, we leave a part of ourselves that is collected by private companies, and by government. We leave a trace of our location (often quite precise), our thoughts and interests, and frequently, we leave explicit personal and private information.

Largely these digital crumbs serve us well, contributing to a convenient and time-saving online experience. We can find friends and loved ones, we are offered goods and services likely to meet our needs, and we learn information that is immediately relevant, served to us in milliseconds.

The sum of our digital crumbs becomes our digital persona through the addition of other data sources. We wear devices that measure our bodily functions. Facial recognition technology is becoming ubiquitous. The Queensland government has rushed through legislation to permit police to use biometric facial recognition technology — with barely a nod to a community consultation process.

Increasingly our homes, workplaces, entertainment venues, public spaces, and even our cars, collect information about ourselves and our movements that are distributed to corporations and to government.

Much of the data that corporations collect about us, they share with government, and vice versa. The Productivity Commission reported in 2017 about ways in which the government and corporations could benefit from sharing data.

A key Productivity Commission recommendation was that a 'comprehensive right' be established, to 'lift up the opportunity for consumers and offer a genuine two-way street to support their continuing willingness to supply a crucial input to business, research and public policy — namely, their data (whether obtained directly or through other channels)'.


"To the extent that we ever have control over our own data in this context, once our data is aggregated and processed, we lose control over it."


In other words, the recommendation encourages the collection of our data for the benefit of government and business. But at least the proposal affords us — as citizens and consumers — some control over our own data.

The question that goes begging in the discourse around data is beyond any 'right' for us to control collection, storage, or deployment of our digital crumbs. More on point is the question of just how we might control that data, and how we lose our data once it is transformed into insights — say, through the application of machine learning.

Each of us produces so much data, in so many diverse forms, it is almost impossible to imagine all the places where our data might reside. How can we control something we don't know to exist?

Secondly, our data is the raw material for a much bigger project. Indeed, this project is the real focus of the Productivity Commission promotion of our data as a 'crucial input to business, research, and public policy'. The recommendations themselves recognise that 'insights' derived through processing our data do not belong to us; that data cannot always be traced to source. Through 'big data', each component of our data — let's say relating to each 'event' that produces a digital crumb — is aggregated with all the other data collected, to generate real time information, or to predict future occurrences.

We have no control over this. Yet it is in these forms — the outputs of data collection and processing — that we are at risk. Government has already established My Health Record, a process collecting our medical records in a centralised repository. Despite the positive messages broadcast by MPs encouraging our buy-in, privacy advocates have criticised the program on a number of bases, including that it will not answer the problem of inefficiencies in health information, and that it does not represent good practice record-keeping of health information.

Despite concerns, probably most of us will feed our information into My Health Record (many reluctantly, it seems), affording government not only information about us personally, but about the population as a whole. To the extent that we ever have control over our own data in this context, once our data is aggregated and processed, we lose control over it.

The Suspect Target Management Plan (STMP) blacklist in New South Wales is another example of data aggregation deployed against citizens. STMP gathers data about individuals without their knowledge. The data is processed and is used to target individuals suspected of being at risk of committing a crime. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the system disproportionately targets young people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians. Whatever the source of this data, it originated with individuals who have now lost control of it, and it is being used to the detriment of those individuals personally, and others like them.

For all the convenience of sharing our data, unwittingly or not, each of us stands to lose in the face of government and corporate power. Our position as citizens, vis-à-vis government, and as consumers vis-à-vis corporations, has shifted. We are now sources of data in a world where data is the currency. We might experience convenience, but the question we need to ask is: at what cost?



Kate GallowayKate Galloway is a legal academic with an interest in social justice.

Topic tags: Kate Galloway, data, privacy



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Existing comments

“at what cost?” What’s the opportunity cost of personal safety? In the Safe New World where every individual is implanted with a device (not just under the skin but deeper inside the body where it can’t be removed easily) which registers the location as well as the stress level of the host, a law enforcement computer will, in the case of a missing person, record the person’s most recent location and stress level and the device identifiers of those persons in the most recent closest proximity to the individual, thus associating possible perpetrators with the ostensible victim. Good for kids, good for everybody.

Roy Chen Yee | 12 March 2018  

Thanks Kate for entering into this vexed field of tech influences in our lives. Clearly it's an area where few non-expert people fear to tread while at the same time looking with concern at the impacts on others, especially children. Two recent books of analysis that have come my way are Adam Greenfield's 'Radical Technologies - The Design of Everyday Life' and Franklin Foer's 'World without Mind - The Existential Threat of Big Tech.' Not only the ordinary person's right to privacy - as you so clearly describe - is under threat, but our understanding of human spiritual growth is being radically challenged.

Len Puglisi | 15 March 2018  

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