Collecting and storing personal data is a sensitive subject in today’s digital world. Companies are criticised for gathering data and following customers’ behaviours.  According to Princeton University researchers, smartphones, even if switched off, can still collect personal data. We are surrounded by devices that can obtain behavioural and sensitive information. These will then become a target for the market.  This article will reflect on the degree of informed consent. In order to do so, it will try to understand the economic value of these data to then shed the lights on the importance of watchdogs in our digital society.

The value and cost of the shared data are often misunderstood


As a matter of fact, it is quite impossible to define precisely the amount of information shared on the internet. The value and cost of the shared data shared are often misunderstood. For example, while surfing on your browser, some social network is constantly fuelling its services. Data are widely collected. For instance, by clicking on a given product, the website could gather some of the information shared on Facebook, such as date of birth, friends, likes, locations, trends followed etc. The benefit for the consumer is just temporary, it is for fun.

A sort of imagined romance is instantly created, which the user will most probably take for granted. It feels like the website can in a way read the window-shopper’s mind. This appears to be costing the user nothing at all. Whereas seen from the platform’s point of view, this romance underlies a much more lucrative effect. To deny some of these schemes, the social network introduced some barriers. On this subject, a study has shown that, when given the chance to set up a profile with advanced encryption by adding a few additional clicks, the majority of users avoided these steps as it took time (Athey, S et al, 2018). This frustration only translates to the continuous benefit accounted to the platforms.

Do we take the time to read the privacy policy statements?

Social networks are built on the innate desire of sharing with others, a human characteristic. For instance, Facebook triggers one’s need by asking “What’s on your mind?”. So, people feel in the right place to share opinions and facts, by being on a friendly-looking interface. Sharing, though, has a price and our friendly opinions are traded for tiny little cookies. But do we really know how cookies work? Do we understand how much of the browsing history is stored and monetised in exchange for ads? What is the value of the privacy you gave up for sharing your thoughts or having a GPS navigation tool? The complexity built around the privacy policy makes the process of “accepting” the terms of use even harder. Typically, what is stated in the terms and conditions is unreasonably long and mostly complicated to understand. According to McDonald and Cranor(2008), the time needed to read the privacy policy statements is huge, and estimated in about 54 billion hours per year.

Regulations could define limits to data collection

So while consumers are lacking time to read, which might have helped them to be aware of the potential behind each click, firms have a much better vision on their expenses and sales. This unbalanced situation suggests a regulatory intervention. Firms should be given restrictions on the usage of certain data collected and governments should handle penalties for non-compliance.

Today, even though it is argued that with machine-learning tools data quantity needed to build customers’ profiles will decrease, firms continue fiercely to take interest in collecting them. Regulations could define limits to the use of these data. In Europe, the recent GDPR law required each customers’ opt-in consent to continue the use of their personal information. Governments should make firms responsible for negative consequences from the use of consumer data. Companies that collect personal data should have the legal obligation to behave trustworthily when dealing with data, as Jack Balkin and Jonathan Zittrain suggested(2016), otherwise they will have to face financial penalties.

Finally giving away some data collected can help create opportunities. For instance, the Midata project in Switzerland collects health data from patients, giving them the opportunity to decide to join a research project or not. Both consumers and firms have much to gain from sharing this information. Regulation should help realise the benefits of data collection while mitigating its hazards. For example, a list of shame should be made of firms who continue to be non-compliant.

To conclude, informed consent is essential to the contract between a user and the proprietary platforms. For the former, it means that his privacy is respected and for the latter, it means that transparency and the trust of the users are highly regarded. This will eventually bring both parties to a longer and more fruitful innovative relationship.