There have been calls to have TikTok banned in Australia with concern over the data they harvest from us, what they do with it, and the country where it is stored. In other words, the issue is about protecting our privacy and security.
As someone who analyses and resolves issues that relate to our digital lifestyle, data harvesting is a doozy! TikTok is one of many online goliaths we must fight to regain our freedom.
In the offline world, we go into a shop, buy their product and leave. Sometimes the cashier will ask for our email address but it's easy to say no. The online world is a different beast. Any product or service we want bears the penalty of passing over highly personal details about ourselves so they can then on-sell them.
Some may say that this is the trade-off for a free service however the reaping and selling occurs even if we are paying for that service. We want to use technology but why does it come with this heavy price tag. At what point did we agree that this type of exchange is OK?
TikTok stores their harvested data in China. Cyber security risk is less about the physical location of the stored data and more about strong encryption and infrastructure protection. Sensitive political relationships however are clearly central in the call to ban it.
If we consider this privacy issue more globally, are we OK with USA companies data mining us? UK? Which countries around the world do we want to data mine us? In the bigger scheme, it's not so much the location, but the very act of data harvesting and taking what they want about us, to use any way they wish.
App data harvesting is a free-for-all. It's the wild west, where it's every person for themselves. Any app or website we use will likely collect a swag of data about us and sell it. Banking, video games, social media, shopping sites. All of them.
They can collect it while we're using the app, when we've logged out, even when we're not using our device. Data can be collected about our location (at intervals such as every hour), our contacts, our device's unique identification details, our calendar, and all the apps on our phone and/or tablet. There is of course an element of user agreement to permit this. These are written in legal jargon, pages long, often beyond the literacy levels of most adults. App settings are usually set on default to maximise the data that we give. And for some reason, it is our responsibility to turn them off.
One might liken this practice to the app's side gig, their way of making extra money. No. Flip this idea. Data harvesting is their gig, and their side gig is the product or service available on the app.
All our data is sent to organisations around the world, many of whom we've never heard of. How each piece of data will be used depends entirely on the organisation at the other end of the request. More information helps companies target their advertising, track high-traffic areas in stores, or show us more dog videos to keep us on their sites for longer. Anyone with access to these data files can see anything they have collected about us, the sites we view online, whom we spend the night with or where we go, whether it's a methadone clinic, a massage parlour or a church. This has an unknown, and maybe even unknowable, effect on our privacy. We have no control over it once it's taken.
Kid's apps are not immune; in fact, they are worse. A new report by Children and Media Australia shows some of Australia's most popular children's apps are collecting so much data, they can track kids for life. They're snatching kids' locations, keystrokes and other identifying information and selling it to companies that can track and shape their interests, purchasing power, and send them ads, and messages (for life) to influence their thinking and decision making in situations such as future political elections. Their data can be sold to everyone and anyone, multiple times, forever. There are no boundaries.
Anyone with access to these data files can see anything they have collected about us, the sites we view online, whom we spend the night with or where we go ... This has an unknown, and maybe even unknowable, effect on our privacy. We have no control over it once it's taken.
We may wonder why this isn't illegal. Well to a certain degree it is, but the apps just bulldozer passed the law.
A week ago, Irish regulators slapped Instagram with a ($598 million) fine after an investigation found the social media platform exposed the personal details of users aged 13 to 17, including email addresses and phone numbers. The minimum age for using Instagram is 13. This was second-biggest penalty issued under the European Union's privacy rules. The biggest was to Amazon, in 2021 which was $1.3 billion, for data protection violations.
And the fines continue.
Last year, WhatsApp (owned by Meta) was fined $334 million for sharing our data with other Meta companies.
Many people I speak to have fallen into a defeatist mode and tell me that organisations like TikTok, Facebook already have all our data, what have we got to lose. Unfortunately, we've grown accustomed to the cryptic tactics organisations use to get our data. Constant trickery is disempowering. It wears us down.
French philosopher Jacques Ranciere can help us here. He suggested there is no reason why those on top should be in that position, and why those on the bottom should be there. That arrangement, he said is due to history and it is not something that we have to accept today.
It can feel a bit like David versus Goliath when dealing with technology companies taking advantage of us. But knowledge is power.
Ranciere was all about the little people sticking together to make change. In this case, it is us. Critically think about and examine the sites and apps that you use. Be more conscious of what you're doing online, what you've been falling for and what of yourself you're giving away.
Every app and site you visit tracks the time you spend on there and leaves what are called cookies on your device - you've probably seen notifications pop up asking you to accept them. 'Cookies' are like crumbs that keep track of everything you've done online. Think of them like spies. Companies use these to see what items you are browsing on shopping sites, what articles you're reading on news sites or what you are searching for on any given day. When you clear your browsing history the cookies are removed, and companies no longer have access to them.
You can also take back control by browsing in private mode. Google calls this incognito mode, and Safari calls it private mode. Doing this allows you to browse sites without cookies being collected.
Ethical clothing and manufacturing processes are now valued more than ever. Ethical websites and apps should be given the same priority. The apps need us. Without us they are nothing. Something quite powerful can happen if we take action together.
- Joanne Orlando is a digital wellbeing analyst, a senior lecturer in early childhood education at Western Sydney University and author of Life Mode On: How to Feel Less Stressed, More Present and Back in Control When Using Technology. Twitter: @joanneorlando
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