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Is There Any Stopping Tech’s Big Four From Monopolizing User Data?


The world’s major technology players now have nearly unbridled access to more consumer information than ever, and in some cases, they’ve abused that privilege in the most horrific ways possible.

When the concept of the Information Superhighway first went mainstream, the public had no idea that the flow of data would go both ways. Moreover, consumers weren’t aware of just how little control they would have over their private information thanks to the introduction of what was then a technological marvel.

Today, the internet-connected world makes privacy a growing concern. Consumer information has always been big business. Now, however, technology has enabled corporations to gain frighteningly exhaustive access into the minds of consumers.


The Belly of the Beast

In tech circles, the top four global technology companies make up the Big Four –which is sometimes called the Big Five, depending on whether Microsoft is involved in an ongoing controversy.

Most data privacy and security controversies center around Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook. Combined, these companies make up the powerhouse known worldwide as the Big Four.

In 2018, Facebook’s dealings with Cambridge Analytica – which potentially compromised the information of 50 million social media users – was exemplary of the insidious activities of the Big Four.

The Cambridge Analytica debacle started with Facebook’s 2015 reversal of its policy of allowing commercial and academic partners free reign to experiment with and monetize user data. The transgressions of Professor Aleksander Kogan spurred Facebook’s abrupt turnaround. Kogan created an app called “This Is Your Digital Life” that collected information about Facebook users and their friends and shared it with Cambridge Analytica without authorization.

Facebook directed Cambridge Analytica to delete the information gathered on its users. Instead, Cambridge Analytica used that information to bolster the campaign of then political candidate Ted Cruz. In part, the data analysis company’s work also led to the later election of current U.S. top executive Donald Trump.


The Corporate Data Goldmine Is Growing Exponentially

Today, the sharing economy is providing corporations with even more personal and sensitive consumer data. Sharing economy companies include well-known names such as Lyft, Uber, Airbnb and Upwork. Every day, companies gain access to a growing body of consumer information from participants in the sharing economy.

The sharing economy is growing so fast that governments are having trouble regulating the vertical – let alone the resulting consumer information. According to PricewaterhouseCoopers, the sector will expand to $335 billion by 2025.

The rapidly expanding body of consumer data has proponents and opponents of information sharing at considerable odds. The problem is that both parties – those for information sharing and those against – have reasonable arguments.

On the one hand, data regulation protects businesses, suppliers and consumers. On the other hand, data regulation could potentially stymie innovation.


The Dangers of Corporate Managed Data

While the case that limiting the information that businesses collect about consumers could thwart innovation seem reasonable to a degree, corporations have done a poor job of keeping consumer information safe – severely diminishing their argument in the eyes of consumers and legislators.

One troubling example is a Cambridge Analytica executive’s admission that using facts to win elections was a waste of time and effort compared to playing on voters’ emotions – which the company executed perfectly by taking advantage of their access to unauthorized Facebook user information.

Cambridge Analytica analyzed the hopes and fears of United States voters and trained an algorithm to predict consumer behavior. The company needed a massive amount of information for the undertaking, which leads back to the work of Professor Aleksander Kogan – who’s seemingly innocuous app collected detailed information about Facebook users as well as their friends.

The gathering and selling of data can also lead to other troubling issues, including fraudulent activity and identity theft. For example, malicious actors steal a new identity every two seconds. Identity theft is one of the more well-known and intimate adverse outcomes of misappropriated consumer data.

What’s worse is that identity theft has a lingering effect. The fallout of identity theft can last for months or years.

Hackers can steal consumer identities by using devices to intercept information at various points of sale. However, they also obtain information by breaking into corporate networks. This threat highlights another hazard raised by corporations collecting and storing massive amounts of sensitive consumer information.

In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received more than 370,061 identity theft reports. Among those reports, consumers lost $74 million to credit card fraud, $40 million to prepaid card theft and $57 million through unauthorized bank account debits.


Privacy Advocates to the Rescue

Some corporations work to protect consumer privacy. Intertrust is one such global trust management company.

According to Intertrust CEO Talal Shamoon, the company’s technology creates a protective environment within consumer devices – for example, computers, smart home controllers and other internet-connected appliances. Says Shamoon, Intertrust’s Modulus technology provides a lightweight layer that wraps itself around sensitive data. When used correctly, Intertrust technology provides secure interoperability.

In an Infosecurity Magazine online article, Intertrust Director of Data Privacy Tomas Sander expresses that the relatively recent worldwide General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) establishes the standard for how corporations should manage consumer information. Expresses Sander, the law is effective in how it compels organizations to design technologies with privacy and security is a top priority, rather than adding it as an afterthought.

More important, however, is Intertrust’s handling of consumer data. The company does not use consumer data to generate profit, unlike companies such as Oracle and IBM, which are explicitly in the business of monetizing it.

There is massive potential for creating corporate profit as well as consumer convenience using data. However, the way that corporations currently handle that information places consumers at risk.

Events such as the Cambridge Analytica debacle and the relentless activities of cybercriminals serve to heighten consumer concerns. An ongoing series of abuses and compromises have made consumers wary of sharing their information and less trusting of corporations.

Time will tell whether corporations can monetize consumer data without placing them at risk. Until corporations do a better job of protecting consumer information, they should waive their right to collect, store and analyze personal data.

To date, the current measures used by corporations to protect consumer information aren’t working. There are advanced measures that companies can take to protect consumer information. Until then, consumer private lives may face compromise at any time.

Ryan Ayers

Ryan Ayers

Ryan Ayers is a researcher and consultant within multiple industries including information technology, blockchain and business development. Always up for a challenge, Ayers enjoys working with startups as well as Fortune 500 companies. When not at work, Ayers loves reading science fiction novels and watching the LA Clippers.

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