Our difficult relationship with the information we leave behind
It was at the end of two long days of standing in a shop and taking data from customers when I felt most uncomfortable for the first time. This guy, early twenties, looking east-London fashionable, wanted to buy a mug for which he would have to pay with three pictures from his phone. He did not hesitate for a second to unlock his smartphone and hand it over to me. Now I was flipping through naked and half-naked pictures of someone who seemed to be his girlfriend, just hoping to find any images we could actually display on the screens outside the store. He did not care the tiniest bit about handing these photographs to a complete stranger – but that stranger felt horribly awkward. I found a few seemingly meaningless pictures of buildings, sent them to our cash point and was relieved to return the phone and hand over the mug.
We had set up a store in Shoreditch's Old Street Station in London to find out how much value people place in their personal data. Our merchandise featured an exclusive letter K designed by London's street art icon Ben Eine – as an original art print, on T-Shirts and mugs. And people were ready to give us more or less anything, with little hesitation.
Even governments start understanding that there is something about data. In, what could be seen as a populist move, the French government announced a Digital Tax in March 2019. "This is about justice," French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said to AP. "These digital giants use our personal data, make huge profits out of these data ... then transfer the money somewhere else without paying their fair amount of taxes."
Some people might now ask: "yes, well, but how much valuable data would they actually have about ME? I am just an insignificant internet user, one amongst billions." Well, I asked myself a similar question and I simply double checked.
So, I decided to download all the data the big platforms had collected over the years. I started with Google. Eight minutes after requesting the archive, I received a message that my download was ready. "The Google data archive that you started on 03 April 2019 is ready. It contains your Android Device configuration service, Bookmarks, Calendar, Chrome, Classroom, Cloud Print, Contacts, Data Shared For Research, Drive, Fit, G Suite Marketplace, Google Help Communities, Input Tools, Google My Business, Google One, Google Pay, Google Photos, Google Play Books, Google Play Console, Google Play Games Services, Google Play Movies & TV, Google Play Music, Google Play Store, Google Shopping, Google+ +1s on websites, Google+ Circles, Google+ Communities, Google+ Stream, Groups, Hands-free, Hangouts, Hangouts on Air, Home App, Keep, Location History, Mail, Maps, Maps (your places), My Activity, My Maps, News, Posts on Google, Profile, Purchases & Reservations, Saved, Search Contributions, Shopping Lists, Street View, Tasks, Textcube and YouTube data." Just the list of services is already impressive.
Even more is the fact that the 6-part download was 10.8 Gigabytes big. That is a lot of data. I learned that on 10th October 2018 at 00:39:28 Moscow time I had checked the weather at London Heathrow. But then it was getting serious. My location data told me why I checked the weather in Heathrow.
On October 9th I left the Hotel Novotel Paddington in London at 10:03, spent the next four hours in our office on the other side of the street, then took a train to Heathrow Terminal 4, left at 4:48 pm to fly 2515 km in 4 hours 37 minutes, made it through all controls at Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport in 20 minutes and was back home at 12:23 am. When I started the weather app 15 minutes later, it still showed me Heathrow, although I wanted to check the weather in Moscow. Sounds scary? Well, it's a reality. It took me less than 10 minutes to combine that data and get a clear understanding of what I did that day.
It was a fascinating journey through that data. I learned that I had been to my hometown airport on a shocking 80 days or that I spend too much time in the nearby shopping mall. And that was just my location data from Google. An easier way than downloading that data is to visit your Google Maps timeline, btw.
Facebook took a minute longer to have my data ready. But then surprisingly it was only 193 MB in size. I learned that my friend peer group is "Established Adult Life" – so obviously Facebook believes me and my friends haven't failed in growing up. I wonder if there is a category "Never grown up" or similar… I find out that I rejected 54 friend requests. And I don't understand why role-playing games and Pampers are part of my ad interests.
The amount of data that is accumulated is enormous. And so is the level of detail. In the end, that makes it so valuable. Legitimate companies can learn how to better sell to you; illegitimate criminals can learn how to attack you. Hence, businesses get taxed (at least in France), criminals get prosecuted (in case they can be found).
That all seems straightforward, but one question remains: why is it so difficult for us to value our data? "To appreciate their data, people need to understand, or even feel, for example, that photos are not merely pictures and contacts are not merely addresses. These data categories are rather people's most valuable life memories and their representation of social connectedness and affiliation. The value of data needs to be communicated. Only then may people realise just how precious their data really is," said Astrid Carolus, a media psychologist from the German University of Wuerzburg.
Her team researched the physical effects of data loss. So they would measure the electrodermal activity on their face, analyse facial expressions and monitor the temperature of the nose tip. All these are indicators for emotional reactions: you start to sweat, the temperature of your nose tip decreases and you – well, make a sad or angry face. To test, they told participants that they would evaluate them for something on a screen, took the phone away (so that it won't distract) and then the researcher would come back after a while, claiming that a colleague accidentally deleted contacts, pictures, etc. from their phone.
The reactions were actually moderate. And the differences between important and unimportant data were minimal. "Our experiment shows that people – at least up to now – have rarely assumed their data to be valuable. It will be one of our future challenges to help people understand what companies already know: data is valuable", said Carolus.
Astrid Carolus researches any kind of human interaction with media.
University of Wuerzburg
Lack of emotion, a rather disillusioned approach to privacy on the internet – maybe people have capitulated? Then on the other hand: 25% of us are covering their webcam because they are afraid of being spied upon. Which is an interesting fact, if you combine it with Dr. Carolus' observation that people need to "feel" data. Actually, if we believe someone might be watching us, we indeed feel insecure. But that feeling is difficult to create with a document that is somewhere on a server far away.
The Data Dollar Store
The Data Dollar Store was a social experiment by Kaspersky to understand how much people value their data. In the video below you can see the first and only pop-up shop where one could only pay for goods with their data and how people responded to that.
The experience can change quickly though. When I sold Ben Eine's art, a woman quite easily gave me her phone to take screenshots of a few WhatsApp conversations from it. So I chose one (I had no clue what it was about) and reconfirmed that I was allowed to open it. Faced with the real situation of having to share that conversation with me, she suddenly changed and got quite emotional. I did not open that chat in the end – it was related to a personal crisis, I learned. Suddenly, she felt the data.
Another customer came back an hour after he had bought something. He had spoken to the friend who was part of the chat we took as 'payment'. He was very nervous when he came back, because his friend (whose name we had made unrecognizable on the screenshot) insisted to urgently take it off the screens. Both men were convinced that the conversation was somehow about drugs. The screenshot we had was a friendly chat between to pals, nothing worrying about it – but their memory of it made it incriminating for them. We took it off the screens.
It seems that the value we place in data indeed depends on an emotional connection. And maybe, realistically, we don't place a strong emotional value in most of the information we store on our phones, computers and in the cloud. About lots of it we forget quickly. Whole social media formats are built around the idea of data disappearing after a while.
But, even if we forget about it, the traces stay. Potential employers google your name, check your social accounts and like that try to get an idea of who you are. Ben Eine says that he only keeps an Instagram account for business and besides that doesn't use any social media, because "it never disappears". The vast majority of us has decided on a different approach.
But, there are a number of indicators that we actually do value the data that we share. A Frost & Sullivan study last year showed that a majority of users abandon services after a data breach.
If our current situation is a deal that people will actually accept forever is questionable. Too many data scandals in recent years made users more aware of the potential harm that can be done with the information – and more people than ever have been directly exposed to data loss. A recent piece of research indicates that 17% of internet users have seen private information about themselves or family members in public that shouldn't have been there. It leads to the fact that lots of people lose interest in improving privacy at all (13%) and don't make any efforts anymore to protect their privacy (19%).
If that is the case, should we maybe follow Ben Eine's suggestion? Let's hand that question over to you: Should everybody have a "data loyalty card" that gives you points for sharing data with companies and extra points if these companies lose your data?