When the mouse takes the wheel

30.08.2019 | 00:00

Dedicated to the first anniversary of the General Data Protection Regulation (the article appeared in Postimees on May 2019)
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I sit into my car, turn on the engine, fasten my seatbelt. Suddenly I am in traffic. Cars pass me by. Someone is waiting on the intersection for an opportunity to cross it. When I take my place in front of a screen that is connected to the Internet and open my web browser, my steering wheel becomes a mouse click.

In traffic I drive my car on the road, on the Internet, I move through data networks. Houses on the streets become little data networks when they reside behind a screen and the city becomes a radio frequency area. The two worlds are not so different, if it were not for the fact that in the first one, every participant has to know the rules and bear responsibility for their fellow participants, but in the other, I cannot even understand who is playing by what rules and where.

Ignorance does not stop action. If someone breaks into your private space in the digital world, then it does not seem half as scary as someone breaking into your home in the real world. People are aware that servers are not impregnable, but it seems to them that chances of it happening to them are unlikely.

Cause for panic?

As long as cyber attacks do not do much harm, news stories about the growing Internet community seem positive. The danger seems as distant as going to the woods after a warm shower of rain for mushroom picking and meeting a bear. Based on several studies, we can conclude that out of the 7,7 billion people that live on planet Earth, 4 billion are actively using the web to click on 60 trillion websites. The more accustomed we become with the Internet, the less we can imagine our lives without it. We are ready to receive more and more goods and services through the web and ready to give up more and more of our data to get it. It’s a common attitude that if getting a service requires a person to share their network identifier or IP address, then it sharing it is no problem. But if the conditions require contact-, family-, education-, income- or health information, then we might think about it for a moment. But if the service is a must-have, then we cannot refuse, after all, data is just part of the deal. That same data, which would be almost worthless if it sat in a folder on a shelf, is now a prized possession in a world where digital data packages are getting higher price tags every day. Life has shown that the amount of people interested in big data is growing due to fact that the Internet’s user base is doing the same. Interested parties include governments, private businesses and hundreds of interest groups, like scientists and students. Every one of them has their own interests and goals. The state wants to know as much as possible about its people and businesses want to sell. Sometimes business and state interests might align. There is no more debate on whether data is a new industry. The data industry thrives when it can get even more data. Although it is firstly for the betterment of people, it can still have very real and unpleasant consequences privacy-wise, and even some legal ones. The most common ones include the loss of privacy, being a victim of manipulation and losing your money and information. All of the above might carry the extra risk of losing one’s honor and dignity. 

Better leadership is possible

When we insert data into some designated box while sitting behind a screen and press enter, we usually do it with the awareness that we are giving our data up to the one who’s asking, in exchange for a promised service. Since most services are indeed Internet-based, it is easy to lose track of exactly how many askers we have actually provided with our data. Has it been shared tens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of times in a year? The years definitely do take their toll, making it all the more likely to one day find yourself in a situation described in real life as “a bad dream”, where on a random day someone would suddenly decide to unexpectedly enter your living room without any notice or permission. Well, who on earth would want that? It is not normal for a stranger to sit in the middle of the living room, constantly staring, lecturing and recommending. Maybe they will even bring the family photo album. In the digital world, however, we have to tolerate data “living its own life”, not because of the will or promises of the person we gave our data to, but due to someone we might not even know of. This is what happens when the data processor doesn’t know how to protect information or simply doesn’t handle the data trusted to them with enough care. Before giving data up, one can always check if the asker of data is up to date on data protection. In traffic, for example, it is completely obvious that only those aware of the rules are allowed on the road. Until data protection becomes the norm, it is reasonable to always carefully inspect the asker’s site for data protection conditions. In case they have not been provided, that is a red flag for poor or nonexistent awareness of data protection rules. Every Internet site has data protection conditions, serving as an explanatory document, informing people of how their data is handled or used. Even though awareness might not be a guarantee for total safety, it is still a sign of a responsible attitude towards data processing.

Sacrificing one’s data to a web of computers, which connects new users with the ever-growing number of 60 trillion websites, should not be done carelessly anymore. Awareness and demand evolve the asker of data, because the digital world will not truly be safe until obeying the rules of data protection has become the norm.

As long as we are leading the mouse in relatively chaotic web traffic, we must rely more on our own wisdom and attentiveness.

Signe Heiberg

Advisor on public relation