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Game teaches risks of personal data exposure


Sim Sim Wissgott

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A screengrab of the Data Dealer game.

A screengrab of the Data Dealer game.

Sexual orientation, private debt, medical records, even your favourite ice cream flavour: do you know much of this personal information is out there and available for sale?

And what if it could affect your job applications, whether you can rent a house or how high your insurance premium will be?

A new Austrian-designed online game titled Data Dealer, set for launch this week, hopes to make people a little more aware of their exposure to these risks, even if at a minimum it prompts them to switch off the GPS application on their smartphones.

The team behind Data Dealer.

The team behind Data Dealer.

"[Companies] are collecting more and more personal data," designer Wolfie Christl said. "At the same time, people are bored with thinking about this... so we had the idea to make a game out of it."

A colourful demo was released last year, and Data Dealer — a browser game in the same style as Facebook's popular FarmVille — won the Games for Change "most significant impact" award in New York in June.

"Here's the most amusing way to learn the depressing news about your vanishing privacy," Forbes magazine commented.

Some 80,000 players have already tested the game, which received funding from the Austrian government and the City of Vienna and will be available online for free.

"I don't think most people can really imagine what it means not only to collect but also to collate and to combine all these massive amounts of personal data," said Christl, one of the game's four core designers.

Even "really boring" information can be a goldmine, the cheerful young designer added.

That is the premise of Data Dealer.

Players get to collect thousands of profiles at the click of a mouse, using shady characters such as a Bernie Madoff-lookalike and a disgruntled nurse who has no qualms about selling patients' records to supplement her meagre salary.

The characters are colourful and amusing. But the scary bit is the message behind the game.

For a few hundred dollars, the manager of a tanning salon will hand over his client list, including names, birthdates and email addresses. Loyalty cards reveal diets and buying habits. A dating site profile turns up a person's relationship status and even the age when they had their first sexual encounter.

The player can then sell this information to a major employer, a rental authority or a security agency to make a quick buck and expand his or her virtual empire.

Regaining control

Data Dealer is just a game, but what if fitness-monitoring systems such as Nike+ sold information to your health insurance provider: would your premium go up if you failed to run a required distance per day?

"People don't know about the value of this personal data and they also don't control it," Christl said, adding: "If we want to have a positive future digital society then we really need to enable people to make the self-determined use of personal data and get back control of it."

The City of Vienna's creative agency Departure praised Data Dealer as "the most innovative international approach to... data protection and online media competence".

"A game will probably not make a big difference, but it is a building block," Tassilo Pellegrini, communications expert at St. Poelten technical college, said.

"Data Dealer can boost people's awareness, and with more awareness they might then act differently."

Mass surveillance and privacy concerns became a major issue this year after US whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the extent of the US National Security Agency's spying on civilians.

Last week, the UN General Assembly's rights committee passed a "right to privacy" resolution, which found that surveillance and data interception by governments and companies "may violate or abuse human rights".

For Christl, who has been working on this not-for-profit project with a small team for two years, the internet is still a great communication and innovation tool.

But he hopes Data Dealer will make people pay more attention to their privacy settings.

The team is now planning an educational version of the game and is working with schools and digital literacy programmes.

Developments in the news will be regularly inserted into the game and a later version will even allow players to hack into each other's accounts for an even more realistic effect.

As Christl put it: "It should also be entertaining; it's not about preaching."

6 comments so far

  • Not to criticise either the article / author, nor either the views of the makers of this game, or the game itself... and not wanting to nitpick based on the use of a single word, which is kind of what I'll do here...

    ... But, I found it totally bizarre that one of the designers is claimed to have said, or was interpreted to have been saying, that "[companies] are collecting more and more personal data," given that the world continues to be rocked by allegations of governmental invasions of personal privacy.


    In all this recent news, companies aren't being described as active agents of spying. Rather, they're described as either totally unwitting victims whose networks were hijacked. Or either unwilling and coerced, thanks to the legal powers of these intelligence agencies, driven and funded by governments, to acquire whatever data they see fit.

    Are these particular Austrians comfortable with governments peering into the lives of citizens and foreigners, but just uncomfortable if it is companies that acquire this data? Or was the author wrong to claim that it was "companies", specifically, that the game-designer was concerned about?

    Don't get me wrong - I know companies collect data. Tonnes of it. And when governments hijack their networks for data acquisition, they can only acquire what data the companies collected in the first instance.

    But, either way, governmental spying is the elephant in the room.

    As an aside, the screenshot of the game shows no "governmental" agents of spying either. Maybe this reflects a belief that spying can't ever be justified by companies, given the only reason for a company to do so is for financial gain... whereas governmental spying, on the scale recently revealed, can be justified? Weird.

    Date and time
    December 06, 2013, 12:48PM
    • Orthonym, government spying is widely reported because of its political implications, but in reality, I'd be more concerned about small, dodgy companies selling our data to criminals. While the scale of government surveillance can be massive, the damage from those small scale data mining could be bigger, hence the focus on companies. Besides, this game is about teaching people to be careful about their privacy settings, which in the case of government surveillance, there isn't much an individual could do on their privacy settings to prevent it.

      Date and time
      December 06, 2013, 11:43PM
    • There's more than one elephant in the room and although Government is one of them they're not the only ones. It's been laughable that Google and Facebook have for example being loudly hypocritical over the last year or so on this issue. These are two giant vacuum cleaners of the data world, Google even had the cheek (and has not been prosecuted anywhere for it) to drive by all our homes and vacuum up our networks and passwords. This indicates a very paranoid world where they need to know everything about US the great unwashed.

      Now why are they so paranoid about US for? Have they got secrets to keep, little (or huge) lies to guard? Where shall we start? Athens 479 BCE?

      Date and time
      December 08, 2013, 6:14AM
  • @orthonym. I find it hilarious you see such an issue for governments to keep private data on its citizens, but when corporations do it... well.. that's fine, because they can be trusted.

    These would be the same corporations who are unregulated and uncontrolled, the ones who because a lack of regulation caused the GFC, which displayed millions of people out of work and cost world economies trillions of dollars? The same companies and business who put their hands out for the evil governments to save them, using monies belonging to the public?

    These fine, upstanding companies who profited off the back of public assistance but who have never paid the price for their risk-taking, because the law is too slow to keep-up with the rapidity of technological change or because they have become so big, they are effectively uncontrollable behemoths, trampling all before them.

    So, these guys can be trusted with our private data, but governments cannot? We do elect governments, but we don't elect companies, and therein lies the difference. While I don't particularly like the prospect of anyone holding, analysing and using my private information, I'm happier to place my trust in a democratically elected government than in an unregulated market place driven purely by greed.

    Date and time
    December 07, 2013, 9:40AM
    • @orthonym - Governmental spying may indeed be the elephant in the room, but the way to manage the elephant is through legislation, not individual choice.
      What this game highlights is the amount of data that people willingly choose to provide. The example of turning off the smartphone GPS is a ripper - nearly 100% of the time you don't need the phone to tell you where you are, and it's easy to turn the GPS on when you do. Meanwhile your phone is tracking your absolute location and sending that back to Apple or Google (who can then share that with governmental agencies).
      We give up so much information voluntarily, either for convenience or simply because it is requested. How many "optional" questions do you answer in a form, simply because they are there? How many times do you fill out the "email address - optional" field in a questionnaire?
      If we are a little more careful with what we share, and with whom, then our personal privacy could be significantly more robust.

      Evil C
      Date and time
      December 08, 2013, 8:46AM
      • The type of democracy on offer today by the US, Australian and British governments in particular, is a completely different beast to that of yesteryear.

        The word "democracy" has taken on a new meaning and freedom is no longer part of it, much like "gay" now has little to do with being carefree.

        Today's democracy incorporates government prying and spying on its own and other countries citizens and lying about the fact that it does so.
        It entails suppressing information and lying about the fact that it does so.
        It involves covertly listening and recording private conversations and lying about the fact that it does so.
        It involves treating all its citizens as potential suspects and lying about the fact that it does so.
        It involves spending huge and disproportionate amounts of money on concealing what a citizen in a true democracy (agreed that there is no such thing) should have the right to know, and an even greater amount of a nation's wealth on trying to find out who does know and how they found out so that they can be "dealt with accordingly". These governments will prosecute anyone who exposes the lies that would not have been thinkable, and should never have been possible in a reasonably true democracy.

        It is more than a little ironic that all of this is justified in the name of freedom which is a rapidly diminishing concept with little application to any western government, particularly the aforementioned three.

        The true absurdity however, is that many, if not most of the democratically oppressed citizens of the West actively support their oppression, because many, if not most of them seem to be in denial, and hence fools.

        Come the revolution you political scumbuckets, because it just plainly cannot go on like this.

        Dubai (via Australia)
        Date and time
        December 08, 2013, 9:00PM

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