Is There Such Thing as a Free Lunch? Why we Should all be More Mindful of our Online Privacy.

Cast your mind back to the early days of the internet: remember the connecting yell of dial-up internet, very slowly loading pages, and garish Geocities pages? At such a time, Napster, Kazaa and Limewire fundamentally changed the ways in which the internet works and what users expect from it. Music and movies were made more accessible than ever and enabled the digital equivalent of recording from the TV on your VCR, or pressing play and record at the same time to copy tunes off the radio. The democratic potential of the internet was unleashed – power, was indeed, to the people. And those people had become used to getting stuff for free. Now cast your mind to the first banner ads you remember. These are important in illustrating the fundamental forces behind the data economy.

Banner ads like this rely on cookies to be profitable. I’m sure that you’re all aware that cookies are not the same variety as those enjoyed by the Cookie Monster; they are essentially lines of code which track your browser-based web activity.

Their widespread implementation and acceptance has precipitated something that now, in the age of the internet of things, worries the hell out of me: a systematised programme of mass spying which would make the most ardent stalker blush.

Most people will put up with Amazon’s ‘users also bought’ or Netflix’s ‘recommendations for you’ sections because they provide a benefit: saving time when finding something to watch. There are, however, potential cultural issues which could develop from a reliance on these.

Take the example of Netflix’s algorithm which predicts a user’s film tastes based on their previous viewing habits. If you watched things only from the recommended section, you would feed this algorithm and reinforce the predictions made for your future viewing. Ultimately, you may watch an ever-narrowing selection of cultural produce which could affect your opinions, behaviours and - worse - end up with you being stuck in a loop of titles from the Fast and Furious franchise. By potentially not being exposed to left-field films that your mate would have brought ‘round, you are being robbed of an opportunity to broaden your perceptions, tastes and understanding.

Algorithmic features such as these are merely the tip of the iceberg though – recommendations are just a tiny manifestation of the analysis of the huge amount of data we all create when interacting online.

All of that data is collected, aggregated, analysed, bought and sold often without our knowledge – and it’s a MASSIVE industry. Because it’s such a lucrative business, there are a huge number of these data brokers.

Consider Acxiom, a partner of Facebook as an example. It’s likely that you’ve never heard of them but if you have an ebay, Facebook, Yahoo! or Twitter account (to name a few), they will have heard of you. Every year, the company processes at least 52 trillion global data transactions which help to enhance their understandings of 200 million individuals. It’s so sophisticated that even those users who use different names across accounts can be identified. In the US, this data is sold to over half of the 100 largest corporations – from banks, insurers and healthcare providers to retailers.

Their 2014 report showed revenue of over a billion dollars.

In the UK, it is a bit more difficult to understand exactly what is happening with the data that we create when interacting online. One thing is for sure – our online interactions are recorded, aggregated and traded by a huge, hidden industry that shape our experiences of the world.

As algorithms develop, they are getting better at understanding you. Sometimes, better than a spouse, and other times before you are ready to tell people something, and other times before even you understand.

If these things don’t scare you enough, how about this: Your online activity (posts, friends, retweets, etc.) will very likely help determine the prices you pay for goods, insurance, medical treatments and your ability to borrow.

So, in the climate of ‘free’ accounts – consider this: imagine all of the ASDA supermarkets in the UK. All of the stock: fruits, veg, wine, clothes, garden furniture, everything. How much do you think it’s worth? Unfortunately, I don’t know the exact number, but it’s got to be considerable. Now add to that all the Walmart stores in the US. The cumulative value has to be monstrous, surely.

Ask yourself: how can FREE companies, like Facebook, have a net worth more than that of the entire Walmart (which includes ASDA) group? The data which we seem to value so little is actually of very considerable value. I think we need to rethink our attitudes towards our personal data, and realise the value is in its control.

Johnny on the Spot is the surfer's personal diary. Privacy is at the top of our agenda, and we promise that we will never, ever share the surf spots you record with the app, or your personal data, with anyone. Find out more about how we do things here.