A tweet caught my attention yesterday afternoon that was related to the whole Unroll.me/Uber data collection situation. Users' data is being anonymized and then sold by Unroll.me, with one of the buyers in this situation being Uber. The co-founder of Unroll.me posted a message to Medium which basically put the responsibility for the controversy on the end users of Unroll.me.
While her approach to communication leaves something to be desired, I for one feel that she is totally, completely right. It's our fault.
Nothing is free
People in general have somehow come to the belief that free means free. Perhaps it's long years of advertisements telling us things like "Buy 1, get 1 free" or "free to the first 10 customers" or whatever. But it's not free. It's NEVER free. Companies are in the business of making money. The cost of the "free" products will be made up elsewhere. Any way they can make a buck off of you, they will. And in recent years, companies have realized that the place to make big money off of you is with your data.
The data comes from various places. They track your credit cards, they track your user ids, they track your browser. Those customer loyalty cards and programs? They exist solely for the purpose of tracking your spending habits. Everything you buy in their stores or on their websites is being tracked, analyzed, anonymized and sold. And you sit back and let it happen.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
From what I can tell, there are two reasons people do this. First, people don't know it's happening. These are the people who are "living under a rock". It is rare that a company is caught selling your data when they explicitly have said they would not. Most of the time, their Terms of Service state clearly that they can collect your data and use it or sell it however they wish. You probably didn't read that big, long TOS or do any research at all about the company and how they do business. That's on you.
Second, they don't care. These people know their data is collected and sold, but they feel that whatever product they are getting out of it is worth it to them, be it discounts or baby pictures from your third cousin. Whatever the reason, they accept it and use the product, service or app anyway. If that's you, then again, it's on you.
Either way, it's your fault that your data is collected and sold because you have accepted it, either by knowingly allowing it or by not making any effort to prevent it.
Does it even matter?
There are many arguments on both sides. On the one side there are those who seek a world of ultra-privacy and are angry that such practices to collect and use your data exist. They don't believe any company, government or organization should have the right to collect anything about you, your habits, or your history.
On the other side there are those who feel that the collection and use of their data is actually helpful in many ways by providing better targeted advertisements, better products that meet user's needs and desires as opposed to the Marketing department's view of their needs and desires, and so forth. Even most of these people, however, are opposed to things going so far as to have that data used against them somehow.
Most of us probably fall in the middle somewhere, and that's exactly the problem. We think that some data collection is ok, as long as it is mutually beneficial. The problem is that we can't agree on where that line should be drawn. How much is too much? What's an acceptable use of my data and what isn't? How do we adjudicate new situations as they arise?
The result is that we don't do anything. And that leaves all of these companies with no restrictions nor guidelines to how they collect and use our data. And we have no one to blame but ourselves.