Does our personal data still belong to us?

Laurine Benjebria, translated by Manon Bénéat
13 Février 2015

As of today, we are permanently connected to the point that our computers and smartphones are becoming an extension of our hands. We spend a great time of our days on websites, apps, etc… Never did we share so much information with our likes on Facebook, our tweets, our online purchases, our online CV. Those are as much data shared every day on the Internet. Big Data is the analytical processing of our digital footprints. They are analyzed by major companies and public laboratories in order to understand and predict our behaviors.

Our daily activities involve a continuous transmission of our personal data, whether for public or private institutions, or for school, work or simply for leisure. For example, every month, the social network Facebook processes around 50 billion photos and receives more than 30 billion bits of content. Every day, more than two billion videos are viewed on YouTube and 220 billion of searches are made on Google every month. That means that we produce daily more than 2.5 quintillion bytes (meaning 10 power of 18) of computer data. Moreover, we esteem that between 2008 and 2012, the digital data went from 480 billion to 2,800 billion gigabytes. This mass information is called Big Data. 

Big Data is a set of data so voluminous that our classic tools of base management of the information are no longer sufficient to interpret this voluminous mass of information. We need to redefine the different tools of capture, storage, search, share, analysis and display of data. Those big data, once analyzed, can affect many areas like trade, insurances, industry, medicine, meteorology, security and the fight against crime. The data processing that we produce day by day allows, amongst other, to identify repetitions and patterns of behavior. The Big Data is one of the biggest computing challenge of the decade 2010-2020.

Personal data predict the users’ behaviors

Big Data includes personal data such as names, telephone numbers and users’ addresses and even searches done on Google or the videos watched on YouTube. What is the purpose of those various information which doesn’t look relevant in the first place? By analyzing such data on their customers, companies can provide tailored offers, which improve the performance of their marketing services. The Big Data implements a commercial profiling and influences in the decision making.  For example, The Big Data analysis is used in statistics of high performance sport in order to determine the athlete's performance but also in websites’ recommendations such as Amazon, in NASA monitoring programs or even in analytical medicine. 

Isabelle Saint-Pierre, responsible of the communication in the Commission Québécoise d’accès à l’Information, states that users who wish to acquire goods or services from a company never read the small print on contracts and never realize that beyond obtaining goods or services they also consent sometimes to the use of their names and addresses for commercial purposes.
Big Data is a growing market, a real source of opportunities for economic sectors. In fact, we estimate that in 2020, Europeans will be worth 1,000 billion Euros, that is to say 8% of the European Union’s GDP. 

In term of social networks, Facebook counts 1.5 billion users with a valuated amount of 176.6 billion dollars. This means that the price of a user is of $146. It is estimated that a Twitter user produces $129 and $90 for a LinkedIn user.

An ill-fitted legal framework in our time

The legal framework used for the protection of personal data was created before the uptake of the Internet. It doesn’t take into account the issues brought by the commercialization of data. This year, a new European draft regulations was implemented. Pierre Trudel, law professor in the University of Montreal and L. R. Wilson Chair in Information Technology and E-Commerce Law, told us that the new legal framework doesn’t answer some issues raised by researchers. According to the law professor of the University of Montreal, it should be verified that The Big Data is used for legitimate ends. “In order to achieve this, several points emerge: fulfill transparency requirements in reasons and results, make the processes applied to data public and take into account the imperative of results sharing between companies and laboratories.

Pierre Trudel suggests a recasting of the legal framework, which is now irrelevant since it was created for another time: As of today, bureaucratic requirements and prohibitions were multiplied, it means that it can no longer be applied. Companies do not feel obliged to make the results from the collected data analysis available.  We must regulate the practices for conditions of use, guarantee the transparency of the processes applied to data treatment instead of censoring the data.

For Pierre Trudel, we need to learn from North America. In term of personal data, the significant differences between Europe and North America is because of the too broad notion of personal data protection implemented in Europe. On the Old Continent, the collection of information and the use of personal information, only, are regulated. Whereas in Canada, the law states that formal obligations start straight at the collection. Isabelle Saint-Pierre, responsible of the communication in the Commission Québécoise d’accès à l’Information, states that the Commission is responsible for acting and monitoring the law on privacy. 

“This Quebecoise law binds the companies which qualify in term of the article 1525 of the Civil Code, a notion defined as an organized economic activity, commercial or not, aiming to produce goods and services and which have to respect the obligations contained by this law as soon as it collects, uses, communicates, stores or destroys personal data. The law on privacy contains provisions in order to control the collection (art. 4 to 9), the use (art. 11 to 13), the communication (art. 13 to 18 to following), the transfer outside Quebec (art. 17), the conservation (art. 10) and/ or destruction (art. 10 to 12) of personal data.”

Our personal data isn’t as personal as we think

For a couple of years, the citizens are more and more sensitive to the handling of their personal data. The recent events, involving organizations such as NSA and the scandals of leaked naked pictures of celebrities, emphasized public vigilance about the respect of private life. In December 2013, 4.5 million phone numbers were hacked from users’ accounts on the social network Snapchat. In 2006, a search project in Harvard gathered the profiles of 1,700 students who were users of the social network Facebook with the aim to study the evolution of their personal interests and activities.

This data, supposed to be anonymous, was made public although the students weren’t aware that the information were collected. Social networks, apps and websites offer user contracts to their users, named “Terms and Conditions”. In 2012, two researchers of Carnegie Mellon (Pittsburgh) University estimated that we would need 76 days to read the privacy policies of websites that we use yearly. They also evaluated that, every year, 1,500 contracts are suggested to users. Most of them aren’t readable: written sometimes too small and in a juridical language too hard to understand by the average citizen. The website, created in June 2013, decodes the terms of use, rating the websites from A to E, to contribute to a better respect of individual freedom. Since very little users read the terms of use and accept them without knowing the risks. For example, by accepting Instagram’s Terms and Conditions, the users support the idea that their images can be sold without any payment and without their consent. By signing in on Facebook, the user approves the share of their information to the social network even by choosing the private sharing option. 

Even websites visited outside Facebook are taken into consideration by the latter. Apple, YouTube, Dropbox, WhatsApp, and Tumblr can change the terms of use without notice. According to Jimmy Proulx-Roy, student in a Communication’s Master Degree in UQAM (Université du Québec à Montréal), we fully enjoy social networks like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn for free. “Those companies are listed on the stock exchange, their incomes are based on the number of users but most importantly on their data. If it is free, it is because we are the products. According to him, the user must ask himself the following question every time he accepts the Terms and Conditions: is the value of my data equivalent to the use of this network? We need to more than ever to be aware of this new numerical reality as well as the ethical and legal issues of our personal data.