How tech companies deceive you into giving away your data

In George Owrell’s dystopian novel 1984 every individual’s every action was watched by Big Brother. On the 70th anniversary of the book’s publication, Big Brother may or may not be watching us; we’ve no real way of being certain. But big business certainly is. And you’ve probably let it happen, says our blogger Stuart Pearcey…

Have you ever told a lie? I bet you have. All of you. Hands up all those people who’ve actually read the terms and conditions of a new app before you’ve ticked the box that says you have? See what I mean?

Now, Lützow-Holm Myrstad (he’s from Finland), on the other hand, has done the reading. And what he’s discovered is that, apart from their mind-numbing length and complexity, by ticking that little box you could be giving away far more than you’ve bargained for.

The tech companies aren’t deceiving us; they’re being up front. It’s just that we either don’t care, or don’t care enough, about the need to be careful.

Lützow-Holm and his colleagues work at the Norwegian Consumer Council. Together, he explains in this Ted Talk, they printed off the terms and conditions for a new phone, and read them all. All 900 pages, I know. Amazing, isn’t it? The exercise took them almost 32 hours. The best part of a working week.

Perhaps there was nothing sinister or embarrassing in there. But what about the dating app? That’s a whole other story, as Lützow-Holm explains: “Hidden behind the main menu was a pre-ticked box that gave the dating company access to all my personal pictures on Facebook, in my case more than 2,000 of them, and some were quite personal. And to make matters worse, when we read the terms and conditions, we discovered the following:

The dating site…
“It read: ‘By posting content as a part of the service, you automatically grant to the company, its affiliates, licensees and successors an irrevocable, perpetual, nonexclusive, transferable, sublicensable, fully paid-up, worldwide right and license to use, copy, store, perform, display, reproduce, record, play, adapt, modify and distribute the content, prepare derivative works of the content, or incorporate the content into other works and grant and authorize sub licenses of the foregoing in any media now known or hereafter created’.” That means the company has a right to do whatever it likes with your content for ever, and you have no right to change your mind. You’ve just ticked the box that says, in effect, ‘help yourself.’

Lützow-Holm goes on to say that not all the data capture is malign; that some of it if just sloppy. But it can have real impact. It could gum up the works in your insurance application, or increase premiums for health insurance.

Lack of regulation
All these issues have come about because of a lack of regulation. With a lack of regulation comes the potential for chaos. As individuals we probably have little power to make a difference; little power to stop tech companies from taking what they want.

We could stop using their apps, perhaps, but one individual won’t make a difference, and if you signed up to that dating app, it’s too late anyway.

This must surely be the responsibility of governments, internationally, to collaborate and create a standard that reins in the power of the tech company – because in the coming decade, so many more appliances will join the internet of things. Water companies can already read you meter by driving by your house; ten years down the line who will know what the fridge is feeding back to Tesco about who eats the most cheese in your house, leading to more targeted advertising.

And here’s a really sinister thought: Can someone else see the images of your child asleep in its cot on the wireless baby monitor?

We need to be aware. Watching Lützow-Holm’s presentation could be your first step down that road to awakening…