The story of the dad who got upset at Target for sending his daughter baby product coupons is the classic, go-to example of when data collection crossed the line in regards to privacy. It’s an attention grabbing story, but it reveals a hidden cost of having the conveniences and helpful tools that are sometimes marketed as “free” because they do not have a monetary cost associated with them. Since there’s no such thing as a free lunch, it would be naive to think that all of these things are actually free with no strings attached. Whether it’s a “free” app that requires in-app purchases to actually access its functionalities and features that make it useful, or “free” thanks to its sponsors who take every opportunity to remind you that you got this product or service for free because of them through their ads, or “free” in exchange for consent to collect your data. While it sounds unfair to us as consumers, I think we only say that because we don’t like it. As long as companies are disclosing what information they are keeping on you, they have a right to collect your data in exchange for their service – to a reasonable extent. Some guidelines that I would agree with are ones stated in the General Data Protection Regulation. Companies should have a reason for collecting data before they do it (as opposed to just collecting it in case it will be useful in the future), the data should be anonymized, and users should be told what data is being collected and what it will be used for. Even if most people don’t read the terms and conditions, the company can at least say that it did its part in notifying the user. Unfortunately, the GDPR only applies to data collected in the EU for now, but adopting a global standard would be nice.
As to whether it’s ethical for companies to track your data in exchange for services, I don’t see a problem with it if the services are frivolous or non-essential to life. This is the price they are charging you for their service, and if you’re not willing to pay that, then don’t use it. Let me qualify this statement by acknowledging that it’s much easier said than done, and that this shouldn’t be taken to the extreme in implying that all services should force you to give them your data to use their services. I’m not sure where the balance should be. If the data is just being used to customize your ads, I don’t personally have a big problem with that. Some might argue that customized ads target people and prey on them, but I think it’s fair game to replace generic ads with custom ones. If you’re really worried that it will make you spend more money than you should be, you can consider it as an opportunity to exercise discipline and grow as a person. If you didn’t already guess, I don’t use ad blockers. Sometimes, I like seeing ads for things that I actually like or receiving discounts on things that I would actually buy. Furthermore, I get that not everything can be provided for free, and ads are a way for businesses to provide their services at lower (or no) monetary cost to its users and for the advertising businesses to make more money. All I ask is that ads stay appropriate, especially on sites and apps that kids frequently visit.