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Think before you click: How is my data being collected and used?

An artificial intelligence ethicist shares insight about data collection and privacy risks in a rapidly changing landscape

The amount of digital data each of us shares—knowingly or unknowingly—through the course of our online interactions is staggering.

Most of us don’t even consider what we’re agreeing to when we click “yes” to a website’s cookies pop-up message, or when we agree to share health info like your heart rate with a smart watch.

But all these interactions add up to a gigantic pile of data that businesses and organizations collect to understand behaviour, trends, calculate risks, and improve sales and performance. A recent study found that 2.5 quintillion bytes (that’s 18 zeroes) of data are created and share daily, and that number is growing.

“When we think about data, it’s something that is invisible. It is not concrete, so I don’t think it registers very highly for the average person,” explains Katrina Ingram, CEO of Ethically Aligned AI.

“When we think about data, it’s something that is invisible. It is not concrete, so I don’t think it registers very highly for the average person.”

– Katrina Ingram, CEO of Ethically Aligned AI

Ingram is an artificial intelligence ethicist who helps companies develop and use AI responsibly. She’s also a subject-matter expert for PowerED™ by Athabasca University’s Artificial Intelligence Ethics Micro-credential.

We sat down with Ingram to help break down data collection and privacy basics, including understanding how and where your data is being used, and questions to ask yourself before you click “yes” online.

1. What is data privacy?

According to Ingram, data privacy is thinking about how data is used and shared in the world. And because of the increase in online interactions, we are producing data all the time, often invisibly.

2. Why should everyone care about data privacy?

From social media to online shopping, most online transactions create data. Most of it is collected invisibly and shared without us knowing, says Ingram. In many situations, we give our “consent” and hand over personal data by clicking “agree” without reading or understanding technical jargon, she adds.

3. Is your digital data being sold?

Thanks to advances in technology, companies have access to an unprecedented amount of our personal data, says Ingram. But what happens to that data after it’s collected? There are 2 primary ways data is commercialized, legally and illegally.

An economy of data brokers gather, repackage, and sell data, often to advertisers. When data breaches happen, information can be sold by bad actors on spaces such as the dark web.

Related: 5 ways to protect yourself from cyber threats

4. What does consent actually mean?

When you visit a website and see that pop-up warning about cookies, what does it mean? How about when you receive an iPhone update notification, and you skip past the data collection consent form as quickly as possible? In effect, you are agreeing to your data being tracked, collected, and shared for different uses, Ingram explains, even if don’t understand what you’re agreeing to.

5. Do current methods of capturing data privacy consent actually work?

Reading and understanding all the terms and conditions that companies ask us to agree to is an almost impossible task because of the level of detail in these documents.

Ingram likens this to going to the grocery store and reading every single ingredient of every specific product you purchase. Most of us don’t. We inherently trust that regulatory bodies and other authorities have approved the ingredients in the packages.

Should there be a similar level of scrutiny on data privacy consent forms?

6. Why is, “I don’t have anything to hide,” not the best mindset when it comes to data privacy?

According to Ingram’s research, when people say they don’t have anything to hide and agree to share their data, they’re answering the wrong question. You wouldn’t share your health records or personal finances, so why would you think about your digital privacy differently, she says.

Learn more about PowerED’s Artificial Intelligence Ethics Micro-Credential.

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  • January 27, 2023