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Sunday, March 3, 2024

Experts, students shed light on tech user privacy concerns and online safety measures

Learn more about invasive technologies, how they manifest in your day-to-day and how to make informed decisions about your data 

 

By REBEKA ZELJKO — features@theaggie.org

 

Researchers say that many are unaware of the ways technology companies utilize our personal data. According to LegalJobs, “67% of internet users in the U.S. are not aware of their country’s privacy and data protection rules.” But just because users don’t know how their data is being used, that doesn’t mean they aren’t concerned. 

Another study conducted by the Pew Research Center reported that as many as 79% of Americans on the web worry about companies infringing upon their online privacy. This is because people are noticing the ways their data is used to shape the media they receive.

It is common for people to come across a well-targeted advertisement while using their tech devices. Daniella Mejia, a fifth-year political science major, says she frequently encounters media personalized to her interests.

“It happens all the time,” Mejia said. “In my Portuguese class, my phone can hear me talking about it because I started getting Portugal travel suggestions on my Pinterest, and it’s pretty cute, but it’s also like it’s always intuitively listening.”

Andy Jones, Ph.D., a continuing lecturer in UC Davis’s University Writing Program and an academic associate director for academic technology services at UC Davis, says that audio collection can occur in technologies with voice-activating features, but tech companies lack transparency about how the data is utilized.

“The newer technologies are problematic, but sometimes for different reasons,” Jones said. “Alexa, for instance, collects snippets of audio from overheard conversations all the time.  Amazon tells us that that information is regularly deleted, but that is not a transparent process, and we don’t know how that information is being used or what private conversations are being monitored.”

Audrey Ino, a third-year cognitive science major, says that she feels these examples of data collection in her day-to-day life. 

“I feel like technology is invasive in the sense that it’s used as a tool to market and sell things to me,” Ino said. “I feel like it doesn’t give me free thought, and it invades my subconscious and the decisions I make.”

Some view technology as a trade-off. According to Jones, there is the reward of convenience and information in exchange for information.

“A lot of people don’t think or worry much about entities such as corporations or the government knowing about their location or their activities,” Jones said. “Most people see themselves as law-abiding citizens, and therefore they aren’t concerned with how they use their technologies or how their locations are being tracked. I think a larger group of people […] are aware their information is being tracked, but they see the trade-off and that these conveniences outweigh.”

Ino says some might not be aware of the way their information is utilized.

“I think the biggest threat is the fact that many people are uneducated about technology, and companies use that aspect of vulnerability to take advantage,” Ino said. “I also feel that the power of technology and social media doesn’t allow people to have freedom of thought.”

To some, data collection feels inevitable. Mejia says that tech companies give us the illusion of privacy.

“I can request to keep my information private, but it’s frustrating because it’s smart and it can adapt,” Mejia said. “It feels like I have no autonomy. Sometimes, it gives you the option to opt out of ‘cookies,’ but a lot of times, it won’t actually let you move forward on the site without clicking ‘accept.’ So you basically have to give them access anyway.”

Other similar features that claim to ensure privacy can have flaws.

“One can do a web search in incognito mode, and then different websites would not know necessarily where the queries are coming from,” Jones said. “However, an employer can track its employees’ activities in incognito mode, just the same as a UC Davis student visiting a website from the dorm can have that information being tracked, even in incognito mode.”

Several solutions have been suggested to avoid data collection and ease anxiety about internet privacy.  But Mejia says most solutions aren’t realistic.

“You can go completely offline, but then you just end up isolating yourself in another way,” Mejia said. “There’s also VPNs, but the thing about VPNs is that they usually cost money. It’s just an obvious equity gap with money and also with information. Not everyone can afford a VPN or knows what a VPN is in the first place.”

Jones suggested a rule of thumb to identify areas of concern. 

“If you’re not paying for the product, you are the product,” Jones said. 

Others turn to the government to regulate tech companies and mitigate data collection.

“I think there needs to be more transparency and regulation,” Ino said. “Individuals who use technology have the right to fully understand what happens to their information when they submit it. There should be some legal initiatives that ensure companies only use personal data for what users consent to.”

Ino says that solutions feel out of reach, and the presence of invasive technology will inevitably continue.

“It seems like tech giants are just so much smarter than the officials in our government so they can use these loopholes and access the information that they want,” Ino said. 

Jones said that he predicts that we will become increasingly indifferent to how our data is used in the future.

“I think we will continue on the trajectory we are on,” Jones said. “And that trajectory it’s moving on now is with the increased concern with convenience and decreased concern with transparency.”

Written by: Rebeka Zeljko — features@theaggie.org