Where privacy ends online

A line needs to be drawn about how our personal data can be exploited for profit

Anybody who uses internet search engines will be familiar with the way modern companies use search terms to create targeted advertisements. Research an airfare to a holiday destination, for example, and soon offers of hotels in that location will pop up in advertisements. Reactions to this example of the monetisation of personal data vary from finding it useful to feeling like one’s privacy has been compromised.

All indications are that this trend will continue, raising questions about what level of protection ought to be afforded to our personal data. At this moment, not everyone’s data is equally valuable – a middle-class professional with a high discretionary income living in Dubai, New York or London is clearly of more interest to advertisers than, for example, a farmer in India.

But with the aggressive expansion of internet services into all corners of the globe, this will change. The cumulative value of the personal data of the millions of internet users among the 1.3 billion Indians will be massive. The aim of major tech companies such as Microsoft and Google to provide limited free internet services in places like India, though useful, is not pure philanthropy. It is to create a mammoth new database that can be exploited for profit.

All this demonstrates the actual cost of the free services offered by the internet, where using services like Google, Hotmail or Yahoo opens up one’s personal information to use. As the modern aphorism about the internet goes, if the service is free, you’re not the customer – you’re the product being sold.

Looked at another way, beyond flesh and bones we are all data. The sum total of a life lived is a collection of information points, from our shoe size to our pattern of travel to even our preference for clam sauce over bolognese on our pasta. Laws have traditionally been written to protect the rights of individuals as members of humanity and of a state. Today, it is perhaps worth considering our human rights also as a collection of a lifetime of information, and how our selves as data should be guarded from the pirates. Oh brave new world, indeed.