The title of this blog post is a quote from the former chief scientist at Amazon.com, Andreas Weigend. He was discussing the “arms race to hire statisticians.” As a math major, I felt particularly drawn to this statement, but putting my personal bias aside, it is an interesting point. Math has never been a particularly “sexy” thing to study. The ability to analyze all of the data companies are collecting is a high demand skill right now, and is definitely making math a more attractive major, but the question is whether or not this new “sexiness” is ethical or not.
The amount of data companies are collecting has become a little absurd. This is where they walk the line of ethical or not. When a company responsibly collects data that I have given them permission to collect in order to better my experience using a particular app or website, I believe it is an ethical data collection. When uber provides me with a list of frequently ubered locations to give me the ability to fast track my uber ordering experience, it is a responsible data collection. I am willingly giving them that data by using the app, I understand the use case of this feature, and I agree that it is bettering my experience. If a user willingly sends data to an individual company, I do not see a problem with that company using that data in order to better the user experience. The two most unethical parts of this problem, in my opinion, are when the data is used for reasons that do not better the user experience, and when data is collected in a way you do not give them permission to access.
If I do not give permission for a company to use my location or my camera or my microphone, then they should not be able to use them. Period. If I do give them permission to use any of these features, then they should be used responsibly, and I should be notified of any reasons these features will be used. If a company tells me they want access to my microphone in order to record a video, I expect that is the only reason they want it. Unless a company is straightforward in telling me that they are going to use a feature to collect extra data, like what I am talking to my friends about, then it should not be allowed. That is spying, and makes me uncomfortable. This is often used in online advertisements, and it is startling when it is. The other day a friend sent me a snapchat of a suitcase. I opened instagram and there was an ad for that same suitcase. Could this have been a coincidence? Maybe. Was it super creepy? Yes. I do not know how instagram got this data in order to show me this ad, but it felt invasive.
Any of MY data collected by a company, should be used to better MY experience. In the article “The Convenience-Surveillance Tradeoff” they discuss a survey where they asked adults about certain situations and if they are comfortable with data about them being collected and stored in these situations. One of the situations was a “smart-thermostat” company, that collected data about someone’s movement around their house and “offer no-cost remote programability in exchange for this data.” In this situation the company would need to be straight forward with buyers of this product about what their data is being used for. If data is being used to help the user save money on heating bills or alter temperature in certain rooms based on where the user is, then great! However personally, I would be creeped out if suddenly I had an influx of ads for kitchen things because I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, and this use of my data was not made clear to me. If someone willingly gives data with the understanding that it will be used in a certain way, great! But if I am being sold as data with no knowledge of what MY data is going towards, that is bad.
I find some online advertising invasive, and some tolerable. Once again, I think this is subject to whether I am aware of my data being used, and if I am aware of what data is being used for what. A bad example is the snapchat-suitcase example given above. A good use of my data for online advertising, is when I am looking for presents. An example is I was looking for a men’s bathrobe for a present, so I did a lot of googling and searching on different sites. It was helpful to me and a better experience for me, that google then gave me ads for men’s bathrobes, because it helped my search. This is an example of me willingly giving up information about myself to a company (telling google i am interested in a bathrobe), and them using it in their own context (not within another app or website), to better my experience as a user (by showing me better deals on something they knew I was looking for).