Privacy and Anonymity Online: Do you know who is receiving and using your personal data?

Written by: Emma Hosgood, Portfolio Manager, Broadband World Forum

This week I was invited to an event run by Speaker’s Corner, with the theme “Data, Design & Disruption”. The unique speaking line-up included Google’s former MD Dan Cobley, Ogilvy Labs’ Creative Lab Technologist Gemma Milne, and Channel 4’s cybersecurity expert Geoff White.

Whilst it was great to have an overview of new tech from Dan, it was technology journalist Geoff White’s presentation which interested me the most (and sparked discussion among my colleagues!) Geoff posed several questions to the audience, all around the security and privacy of personal data, whilst using our mobile phones.

Back in 2013, Geoff worked on Channel 4’s Data Baby – an experiment that aimed to monitor how a (made-up) individual’s web habits are tracked and used by online advertisers.

To help illustrate his presentation, he did a simple demonstration showing all the data sent and received by a mobile phone belonging to member of the audience, who had no idea who the companies named, were. They weren’t the names of the webpages he had visited, or the names of the app providers he was familiar with. I found it no surprise that content delivery network carriers like Akamai, Limelight and Level 3 were top of the list (given that Akamai carries 30% of the world’s Internet’s traffic) but as they were strange names to the user, it raised much cause for concern.

It was fascinating to see a visual for how far our data travels, and obviously it does bring a lot of questions forwards we should all consider, such as:

Do we really know where our data goes and who uses it?
Do we understand who owns it and who is responsible for privacy?
Is your mobile phone sending data you are unaware of?

One question from the audience to Geoff was how has his internet activity changed since learning everything he has? There were some sniggers from the audience but it was his answer which stuck with me the most that evening. He said that he turns mobile data off whenever he can, he doesn’t connect to free Wi-Fi networks, and he regularly uses the somewhat controversial Tor browser.

Which made me think – Do we really need to be this careful?

I don’t think anyone likes the idea of their personal data being shared but the debate which followed, with Dan Cobley, was how personal are we talking? Is the data collected whilst we use these websites and apps precious to us? Should it be kept private? Or do the benefits of personalisation and tailored messaging outweigh the exchange of data?

Protecting privacy and anonymity online raises some amazingly-interesting and morally-trickier questions, especially surrounding the use of Tor. If you are interested in getting further into the topic (as I am!) I would highly recommend Jamie Bartlett’s book “The Dark Net”. He will be delivering a keynote at Broadband World Forum, and the book delves into all aspects of internet subcultures hiding in the “dark net” under the conditions of freedom and anonymity.

Food for thought for sure!

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