Data privacy is not like a consumer good, where you click “I accept” and all is well. Data privacy is more like air quality or safe drinking water, a public good that cannot be effectively regulated by trusting in the wisdom of millions of individual choices. A more collective response is needed.
This week’s data/privacy debacle has to do with Strava’s heat map. To sum it up quickly: Strava is a really good app to track your workouts, runs, and bike rides. However, they published a heat map of their users' activities around the world, which also showed suspected military bases in war zones around the world. We’re talking American bases in the Middle East, but there seems to be rumoured bases of other countries, like Russia, the UK, France, and more.
To me this highlights growing concerns that the Indie Web and Tech community has tried to voice for years: the collection of data by corporations offering a free service. And the lack of knowledge that the users may have about where their data is going and how it’s being used.
If you're not paying for it, you're the product
A few years ago, I was an employee for a small app development studio. Working there opened my eyes on the reality that unfortunately, most people would rather get an app for free, subsidised by ads and relinquishing a little bit of their data and privacy rather than paying the $0.99 - $1.99 - $2.99 barrier of entry.
What started as a worrying trend became the norm, and soon, it became evident that mobile ecosystems were turning into a hard market for independent software businesses.
But this behavior has turned into a bigger issue where we tend to refuse paying for digital products —unless they’re Netflix or Spotify. And in both cases, we’ve seen examples of these companies using the data for uncomfortable ads.
On the individual level, I think we’re too eager to get a service — and yes, feel free to blame marketing — prior to understanding the consequences a free product can have with our data. On the other hand, it’d be nice to start seeing corporations be more vocal about the data they collect and the reasons as to why they’re collecting it. I’d love to see an “opt-out by default” mentality where companies use a simple onboarding process to explain what they do with it.
And, as a consumer, I’d love to get a way to use current free services for a fee if it meant getting rid of ads and keeping my data safe. Even at a symbolic $1.5 - 2/month, Facebook would make more money than it does selling ads:
In Q3 2016, it was reported that the average revenue per user was $4.01 — or just over $1/user/month. With a growing community of over 2 Billion users, this would be an easy way to offer an alternative for the users who want and can afford this change.
Even I’m still sceptical, I really hope that the Strava heatmap fiasco will bring a more positive outcome on the data-collection debate. Privacy is important, and it’s not quite dead yet, so let’s try to preserve it, and ourselves, as much as we can.