Carl Rodrigues is president and CEO of SOTI, a provider of mobile and internet of things management solutions.
The recent news surrounding Cambridge Analytica demonstrates how, in today's world, data is power. Our smartphones, tablets and wearables are collecting massive amounts of information about our personal lives and preferences. When all this data falls into the hands of the wrong person, they can target people in ways never before imaginable. This is the situation currently being played out involving social-networking giant Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, a data-mining firm in London.
The scandal begs bigger questions, though, as identified by MIT Technology Review: How can we resolve the current transparency paradox and become more open yet more secure at the same time? Did our comfort with today's thumb-driven culture lead to this "spy-in-your-pocket" social-media tipping point?
The use of data for spying and entrapment, to influence our purchasing decisions or even to influence the selection of world leaders, is raising alarm bells worldwide. But for many of us in the tech community, this is not at all surprising. In today's mobile culture, social-media and search-engine companies are collecting information bit by bit and building detailed profiles of every person on the planet. Nobody is exempt, not even children and teenagers. Profiles are built not only with information gleaned directly from us, but as we are seeing from the Cambridge Analytica case, information pulled from our friends, family and connections. These profiles then become precious merchandise for sale – money in the bank for companies in the business of selling them. Given Facebook's business model of selling the precise targeting of potential customers, Cambridge Analytica's use of Facebook data to target voters in the U.S. election is not all that shocking.
With the immense amount of data that is being silently collected about us, new questions around regulation and privacy have come to the fore. As with highly regulated sectors such as banking and health care, there is a need to regulate the collection, distribution and use of personal data. As Daniel Therrien, Canada's Privacy Commissioner, said in a statement, "The digital world, and social media in particular, have become entrenched in our daily lives, and people want their rights to be respected."
Companies such as Facebook thrive on selling user data, yet there is little governance in terms of how that data is managed, who buys it or how it will be used. We only need to look in our own backyard at Alphabet Inc.'s Sidewalk Labs project, which will turn a portion of Toronto's waterfront into a test bed for "smart city" technologies. Those technologies will use data collected from sensor-lined streets to guide everything from street lights to pollution-reduction initiatives to the movement of people, traffic and goods through the area. But the project raises major questions: Where will the data be housed? Who will own it? In what context will it eventually be used?
Although data analytics have been used in retail for quite some time to target buyers and influence purchasing decisions, we're now seeing the same technology being used to target voters in the political arena. We are only beginning to understand the damage this technology can inflict if allowed to be used unchecked. Do we really understand what we are disclosing when we sign up to social networks, fill out online surveys, use a mapping app or upload our photographs? There is a severe need for governance of data-driven organizations to protect the basic freedoms and security that our society is built on.
New technologies bring the possibility of positive transformations for mankind, but we know from history that technology has also been used to cause great harm. Governments must work with the private sector to ensure that new technology is used for the betterment of humanity.