Data collection endangers more than your privacy

The “I have nothing to hide” argument misses the point of data collection.

We’ve all heard the classic argument for being unconcerned about your online paper trail—you have nothing to hide, so there’s no reason to object to companies collecting your data. You don’t purchase organs on the dark web, you make sure to clear your browsing history after visiting a spicy website, and even remember to use incognito mode sometimes. So you feel fine clicking “allow all cookies” to get pesky pop-ups off your screen.

The truth is nobody cares what sinful things you do on the internet—your online activity is boring. But when tech companies throw it in a pot along with millions of other people’s data, they can build models that generate immense profit and influence human behaviour. You should object to data collection for those two reasons, even if you’re a good citizen of the internet.

Your data is food for artificial intelligence (AI) models that predict human behaviour, and boy, do they gulp it down. Your data is so valuable, Google’s ad business, which predicts what you’re likely to buy, made $224 billion in 2022.

The problem isn’t just that Big Tech knowing our tastes is creepy. By consenting to data collection, we help companies accumulate dangerous amounts of power. With Meta blocking news in Canada and X, formerly known as Twitter, neglecting proper treatment of misinformation, Big Tech has proven capable of upending informational integrity. The more powerful the firm, the more damage it can cause.

Your data can also be weaponized for political gain. Much like targeted ads, models of human behaviour can determine how to appeal to a certain demographic and influence their voting.

China carried out online propaganda attacks against certain MP candidates in Canada’s 2021 federal election, which Conservatives claim caused the loss of nine seats. Russian bots influenced Americans to vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. In 2015, a contractor sold the data of 87 million Facebook users to Cambridge Analytica, a think tank that weaponized disinformation for political clients like Ted Cruz.

TikTok, the most popular social media platform among American teens, collects an ungodly amount of user data. It’s hard to trust parent company ByteDance’s claim that American data doesn’t leave the United States when journalists who criticize the app are stalked. For the Chinese Communist Party, TikTok data could be a gold mine of potential for election interference.

Fortunately, you can combat the dishonourable use of data. Just like every vote counts in an election, every “do not track” request chips away at ominous data collection. Though Canadian data privacy legislation doesn’t yet give individuals the unconditional right to be forgotten, in the United States, a new service sends automated requests which legally force dozens of companies to delete your data.

Until Canada implements something similar, do your fair share by taking one extra second to reject unnecessary cookies. As an added plus, Google will have a harder time piecing together your embarrassing penchant for Beanie Babies.

Curtis is a fourth-year computing student and The Journal’s Production Manager.


data collection, digital privacy, national security

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