In the previous opinion piece, we showed how sharing analytics data, meant for service improvement, can have privacy implications. A common approach to alleviate some of these concerns is that tech companies allow users to opt-out of sharing data. How good of a solution is this?
Well, the difficulty starts with the fact that there is no consensus or standard on the scope of the data collected. Each company decides what they consider basic information and more advanced information. While some are modest, others are quite obtrusive. And this is hard to verify, as a user, you cannot know if your data is used for bug fixing or to sell you a product. You can of course check Microsoft’s, Apple’s, or Google’s terms and conditions and you will likely find similar statements. Microsoft Office for instance collects only required data, which is “diagnostic data … which helps us find and fix problems, identify and mitigate threats, and improve your experience. This data does not include your name or email address, the content of your files, or information about apps unrelated to Office or OneDrive.” 1 However, with the number of applications and services that we make use of today, checking this for all of them seems like a Herculean task.
For more advanced data, i.e., data used to personalise services, for instance, you have the option of turning the collection off. This is the case for instance for Microsoft metrics. Many of these metrics are automatically collected and though you can turn the collection off, it takes some serious digging into the settings. Yet, even if you went to the trouble of opting out of analytics sharing, or you chose only functional cookies on a website, your user data will still be collected. A 2021 study by Trinity College in Dublin found that Google collects data every 4.5 minutes, from Android phone users even if they opt-out. This includes information on how often you use your apps, network connection data, and details about your WiFi and other connections. 2
Perhaps it is not that we need to know exactly which company uses our data, and for which purpose. Given the amount of data and the number of applications, service providers, and tech companies, knowing everything about what data is shared and how seems unrealistic. We need to be aware that our anonymised data is the price we pay for these seemingly free services.