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Mine, Facebook's, Google's? Whose data is it anyway?

Vicky Kapur (From the Executive Editor's Desk)
Filed on November 24, 2019 | Last updated on November 24, 2019 at 06.24 am
Facebook, Google, Dubai, UAE

They call it data mining - it is, indeed, the new oil or the new gold. And it is, of course, yours.

A colleague of mine has had this vexatious problem over the past few weeks. He's been inundated with calls from real estate agents trying to sell him a house or two in Dubai. The problem is, he doesn't want it. I know (and he knows) that cold-calling is illegal in the UAE and such agents and their agencies can be reported to the authorities but, and herein lies his dilemma, these calls cannot be strictly categorised as unsolicited.

Dozens of agents calling him scores of times on a daily basis have repeated the same message - that he's elicited interest in their offering, left his mobile number with them, and that they're calling to merely service the request. His query about how exactly did he evince his interest led him to the 'truth' he did not want to hear. 'You left us a message via Facebook.' He swears he hasn't, at least in the past 12 months, registered any interest or even visited any property agent's website. He's tried in vain to trace back his (digital) footsteps, he's changed his password, delisted from everything that he possibly could, but the calls keep coming. It is obvious that his mobile number continues to be peddled among eager agents without his explicit consent.

So short of changing his number, what can he do? And if he does, who's to say that the new number won't be subject to the same abuse as this one? While writing this piece, I decided to check my own Facebook ad settings. I was surprised to find out that no less than 77 advertisers had "run an ad in the past seven days using a list uploaded to Facebook containing [my] information, typically an email address or a phone number." I recognise some of the 77 brands but have no idea what some others may be up to. Thankfully, FB gave me the option to 'hide ads' from particular advertisers and I did just that.

They call it data mining - it is, indeed, the new oil or the new gold. And it is, of course, yours.

How, when and who you share it with will decide whether you can sleep peacefully or receive random calls in the middle of the night. Now I'm not against the use of data for personalisation - not at all. For instance, I'm open to my interest in 'desi' music being harnessed to create a personalised playlist and I won't mind a bit if my reading habits are used to suggest a book or a website's subscription. But what's questionable is the morality of targeting ads at or discriminating against certain ethnicity, gender or disability group.

We all sneeze at jobs ads that mention nationality or ethnicity, and they have been largely weeded out of the local Classifieds. But digital targeting means that ads can be selectively displayed (or not) to people of a certain race or ethnicity - meaning someone who wishes to hire based on race can use such precise targeting online for their racist agenda. That, for me, opens a whole new ethical can of worms. Why and how did we reach this place where our own data isn't our own, where personal and often intimate information - the brand of innerwear we sport - is used to 'target' us with ads and promos, where each click, like and scroll is being used to gather our interests?

Why can't my colleague figure out how to civilly opt-out from whatever list he's been enrolled in? Part of the problem is that, we, the users, have been happily checking every box that comes our way and filling up every piece of info when prompted. Did we ever stop to ask why a gaming app wants to know my mother's maiden name or why must I let a certain app the liberty to post on behalf of me or grant a site the access to my contacts list? I have a strong suspicion that my colleague - or his friend's friend - may not have paid heed to such trivial detail.


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