Use and monetization of personal information by Google and Facebook

Companies as Google and Facebook collect, aggregate and use personal information of the users. The accumulation of information gives limitless knowledge about  individuals and represents a privacy risk. 

NRCCL-researcher Samson Esayas has been invited to present his research to the U.S. Senate on February 27.          

Eva Dobos: You are in Brisbane, Australia at the moment, but soon will you fly to Washington to give a presentation to the U.S. Senate. What made the Senate interested in your research?       

Samson Esayas: The invitation is based on an article I published in the International Journal of Law and Technology titled ‘The Idea of ‘Emergent Properties’ in Data Privacy: Towards a Holistic Approach’. The article addresses the challenges for the application of data privacy rules resulting from the increasing monetization of personal information. The paper looks into the business models of companies such as Google and Facebook, particularly the tendencies to collect data through multitude of services and to aggregate such data, and the difficulties of applying the current EU data privacy rules to the data practices of such firms. The article raises three major points.

First, it examines how the businesses models of these companies challenges the application of data protection rules that relies on identifying the purpose for which the data were collected, the different services (processing activities) for which the data were collected and the ability to relate every piece of personal data to a particular service. By drawing lessons from the concept of emergent property, the article challenges these assumptions in light of emerging data processing practices, where companies process personal data for a panoply of purposes, where almost every use of a service generates personal data, and data are combined across these processing activities. These practices blur the lines between different services (processing activities) and complicate attributing every piece of data to a particular processing.

Secondly, it argues that when entities accumulate the personal information of individuals by entering into a wide array of areas and then aggregate data across those channels, there are privacy risks, namely the overexposure of the individual and the loss of transparency, accountability and practical obscurity, all of which are not adequately addressed under the current data privacy rules. These risks represent ‘emergent properties’ in the sense that the sum, that is, the aggregated and accumulated data, contains risks that are not present in the individual datasets.

Last but not least, informed by the discussion about emergent property, the article calls for a holistic approach with enhanced responsibility for certain actors based on the totality of the processing activities and data aggregation practices.

ED: What is the relevance for the Senate and the policy makers? 

SE: It is because the article was ranked by the Future of Privacy Forum (FPF) as one of the top ten privacy papers of 2017 that are relevant for policy makers. The FPF organizes the Annual Privacy Papers for Policymakers Award that recognizes “leading privacy scholarship that is relevant to policymakers in the U.S. Congress, at U.S. federal agencies, and for data protection authorities abroad.” My article was selected to receive an “Honourable Mention” on the basis of its uniformly strong reviews it received from the Advisory Board and will feature in a digest that contains ‘must read’ scholarships of the year for policy makers. Papers were chosen by a team of academics, advocates, and industry professionals for demonstrating a thoughtful analysis of emerging issues and proposing new means of analysis that could influence real-world policy.

ED: Is it important for ordinary people as well?

SE: It is of great interest for ordinary people because the article addresses how companies such as Google and Facebook collect, use and monetize their users’ personal information and the power that comes with such control over massive information. It emphasizes how the accumulation of personal information in the hands of few entities overexposes individuals, and thereby undermining their personal autonomy, integrity and dignity. Such limitless knowledge of the individual transforms into a significant power imbalance, turning the individual into a predictable citizen-consumer who can easily be stimulated and nudged to serve profit-maximizing goals. The more exposed an individual becomes, the easier it is to ‘force his obedience’ and suppress his capacity to make free choices.

By Eva Dobos
Published Feb. 20, 2018 1:55 PM - Last modified Feb. 20, 2018 1:55 PM