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Are brands infringing our rights? Recognize the 4 horsemen of the data apocalypse

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By Jonathan Joseph, Board member

April 2, 2024 | 7 min read

Brands are seizing too much data from consumers and in increasingly opaque ways. Jonathan Joseph of The Ethical Tech Project charts this insidious over-reach.

4 horsemen

The fight for our data rights is entering a new and more dangerous phase.

Do you want your car to snitch to your insurance company if you go a few miles over the speed limit or dutifully rat you out every time you accelerate or brake too hard? Of course not, but that’s exactly what has been happening to many motorists.

Automakers, notably GM, but reportedly also Kia, Subaru, Mitsubishi, Ford, Honda, and Hyundai, are quietly collecting data about drivers, then passing it along to brokers who resell it to insurers. The result: some consumers are being denied insurance, or charged double the usual amount, based on driving data they never knowingly agreed to share.

This isn’t just another instance of a company slipping up or a broker being greedier than usual. It’s a sign of something unsettling, systemic, and far-reaching.

Four big trends, call them the 'Four Horsemen of the Data Apocalypse’, are coalescing and bearing down on us, and we don’t have much time left in which to push back against them.

The First Horseman: New Tech

“Data” used to mean paper records in physical filing cabinets. The digital revolution and the birth of the Internet changed that, vastly expanding both the amount of data in circulation and the ways in which it can be collected. Now, the rise of ubiquitous IoT, powerful sensors, biometrics, and even neural marketing technologies allows organizations to go way beyond web tracking and collect data in ways that most consumers (and many regulators) haven’t yet noticed.

Tracking how well you’re driving is just the beginning. We’re already seeing gaze-tracking and face-recognition technologies being integrated into public billboards, while motion-capture and geo-location data is also increasingly being captured across a wide range of wearable and mobile devices.

The Second Horseman: Stealth Consent

Regulators have been trying to clamp down on dark patterns and manipulative consent requests for years. Increasingly, though, we’re seeing companies sneaking language into legal boilerplate that lets them claim they’ve received permission for data collection or utilization when in fact, their customers have no idea what’s going on.

The auto-tracking case is a good example: many motorists unknowingly signed away their rights when finalizing lengthy contracts required by a dealer, with no clear disclosure about what would be done with their data. This kind of “stealth consent” is growing ubiquitous, but it’s clearly more about giving corporations plausible deniability than about giving consumers agency over how their data is used.

The Third Horseman: Data Brokers

Put emerging technologies and stealth consent together, and you wind up with a huge dragnet capable of harvesting an unprecedented amount of data. That, in turn, is giving rise to a vast ecosystem of data brokers and other shady actors who are busily collating, repackaging, and selling that data. From mental health apps to AI girlfriends, these brokers are capturing your data when you’re at your most vulnerable, then selling it for profit.

LexisNexis and Verisk are in the spotlight for piping automakers’ driving data to insurance companies, but they’re hardly the only culprits. The Federal Trade Commission just proposed settlements with “mass data collectors,” including Avast, which it claims collected online data revealing consumers’ health issues, and InMarket and X-Mode, which allegedly tricked people into giving up huge quantities of sensitive location data.

The Fourth Horseman: Surveillance Capitalism 2.0

Surveillance capitalism used to mean that companies wanted to know as much as possible about you so they could try to sell you stuff. In theory, at least, that gives the consumer a slightly better experience: fewer generic ads for toenail fungus remedies and more for products you actually care about. Now, though, surveillance capitalism has entered a more sinister phase: the goal isn’t just to turbo-charge advertising but rather to commodify data in ways that cut against the best interests of the consumer.

Consider the auto industry: no consumer in their right mind wants their auto data to be used to deny them insurance. Similar abuses are arguably taking place, less obviously, but at a vast scale, when consumer data is poured into AI models: corporations get better AI models, but there’s no pretense that any corresponding benefit is being delivered to consumers.

Apocalypse now?

I’m only half-joking when I refer to these four trends as harbingers of the data apocalypse. Individually, each trend is a real problem; collectively, they represent a sea-change in the way corporations collect and use consumer data. If data can be collected virtually anywhere, with virtually no opportunity for meaningful consent, then transported virtually anywhere in bulk and used to actively harm the consumer, you’ve got to ask: do we still have data rights in any meaningful sense?

We can’t simply blame consumers for not paying attention. Sure, now that motorists know their driving data is being fed to insurers, they can ask pointed questions the next time they buy a car. Realistically, though, the Four Horsemen will always race ahead of efforts to educate consumers: if consumers start re-asserting their data rights in one area, corporations will quickly find a dozen other shady ways to exploit their data.

To rein in the Four Horsemen, then, requires legislative and regulatory action at the federal level. At a minimum, a federal data privacy law could enshrine the basic standards found in other modern privacy laws, such as the GDPR’s insistence that data shouldn’t be collected needlessly or used in ways that are against the data subject’s interests. That might help to curb the worst abuses of surveillance capitalism while providing a clearer blueprint for the ethical and responsible use of data.

In addition to providing business-focused guidelines, a federal data law could promote consumer tools such as Global Privacy Control to help us understand and enforce our privacy rights. Going further still, imagine if consumers could get a universal data report, much as they now get credit agency reports, summarizing the kinds of data that are collected and for what purpose, or if they could log on to a one-stop central dashboard to set and revoke preferences determining how their data can and can’t be used.

Such measures might sound far-fetched, but they’re exactly the kinds of big-picture thinking we need to defend against the growing threats to our data rights. The data apocalypse is almost upon us. It’s time for our political leaders to recognize the urgency of the problem and start finding more creative and effective ways to fight back.

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