Our Phones are Giving Us Away – The Question Marker
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Dept. of Sociology

Our Phones are Giving Us Away

“Our digital footprints continue to power a multi-billion-dollar data economy.”

Data Privacy

Two years ago, sick and broke, I was in need of a soft loan. I called and texted a couple of people but couldn’t get any help. Then I logged into Facebook and the first thing I saw was an advert by a Nigerian fintech company offering a loan without collateral. Magic moment!

I got the loan within an hour, after filling out some personal and financial information. Despite receiving funds in my bank account, it felt unreal, not because I got a loan without collateral but because my phone knew I was in need of funds and led me to where I could get money within a short period of time. Someone or something was paying attention to the calls I made or the texts I had sent, and targeted a loan ad at me. 

Then, perhaps more interestingly, a fintech company ‘trusted’ me enough to give me a loan without any credit history or collateral; this is surely an upside of data  and technology. The downside? I had to part away with personal data like my BVN to verify I am a real person and the owner of my bank account. I was required to login to my Facebook account, which gave the fintech company access to my social capital and network; I also surrendered my phone number to be sure they can reach me, and the contacts in my phonebook, in case I decide to go silent when my loan is due. I had to turn on my GPS to have my location verified as well. The information I provided helped the algorithm decide whether I was eligible for a loan or not. This method broad profiling has since been adopted by other fintech companies that have come into the market. A certain loan company even accesses all your contacts and sends messages to them to ‘encourage’ you to pay back in case you abscond on your loan.The number of Nigerians who benefit from these loans and other financial services they offer have grown exponentially. But many do not understand in what ways their data is being used even though they “consent” to terms and conditions before signing up on these services. *

The rapid growth of the mobile app industry has contributed to the ongoing unprecedented levels of data harvesting. As of the third quarter of 2019, Google Play store had 2.47 million apps while Apple App Store had 1.8 million apps. In its Third-Party Tracking report, Financial Times estimated over 88% of android apps transfer information back to Google’s parent company Alphabet while 43% of apps studied transfer information to Facebook. During the Cambridge Analytica Scandal, Facebook admitted to having over 5000 data points on each of their users and this number will continue to increase. On the surface, this may mean nothing but different information shared by these apps to a parent server is how profiles and shadow profiles are created. For instance, if my bank app or loan provider shares my data with Facebook, a Dating App shares my data with Facebook, and my Period-Tracking app also shares, Facebook will be able to determine my financial status, my sexuality, the approximate dates my menstrual can occur and other passive information that I may have provided. They create a profile and target ads at me. Beyond targeting ads, much more can happen. For every person Facebook targets, they target their friends and profile them as well. Biometric and face recognition apps put a final nail to this coffin. The idea is to be able to use these data to link to different databases and create not only a physical profile but a psychological profile of people by studying their behavior. Cambridge Analytica Whistleblower Chrsitopher Wylie describes this as a psychological warfare. The interconnectivity of these mobile applications may explain why my loan company had me download their mobile app first and had me link my facebook account at some point.

When it comes to the issue of data privacy, people usually argue that they have nothing to hide and don’t mind being profiled. But data rights are human rights; until they are being threatened, you may not know just how much you need them. Our digital footprints continue to power a multi-billion-dollar data economy. We are the producers but we are also the commodity and unfortunately, we receive no compensation or financial value from these cash troves. However, getting paid off for our data alone may not be enough. Of course, a loan facility trying to offer me money to ease my affairs cannot pay me for giving them my data but what of the others like Facebook and Google who thrive because we exist. Anya Skatova a research fellow with University of Nottingham argued that data cannot be measured in monetary value and it is rather simplistic to just pay people off for using their data. The other thing that is left will be to let the power of usable access and sharing go back to the hands of the people who own and created these data, where data created by individuals are domiciled on their own personal domains. 

By 2020, 1.7mb of information will be generated by one person every second. As a starting point, we should start asking some of these questions when engaging with any sort of digital technology: How is my data created? Who is gathering data about me? Who is it being shared with? What are they using it for? I did not see the need to ask these questions when I requested a loan years ago, I didn’t even know they were questions I was meant to ask but as they say, the older, the wiser. ✚

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