Technology companies have been pummeled by revelations about how poorly they protect their customers’ personal information, including an in-depth New York Times report detailing the ability of smartphone apps to track users’ locations. Some companies, most notably Apple, have begun promoting the fact that they sell products and services that safeguard consumer privacy.
Smartphone users are never asked explicitly if they want to be tracked every moment of each day. But cellular companies, smartphone makers, app developers, and social media companies all claim they have users’ permission to conduct near-constant personal surveillance.
The underlying problem is that most people don’t understand how tracking really works. The technology companies haven’t helped teach their customers about it, either. In fact, they’ve intentionally obscured important details to build a multi-billion-dollar data economy based on an ethically questionable notion of informed consent.
How consumers are made to agree
But people don’t always have a free choice. Instead, it’s a “take-it-or-leave-it” agreement, in which a customer can use the service only if they agree.
Anyone who actually wants to understand what the policies say finds the details are buried in long legal documents unreadable by nearly everyone, perhaps except the lawyers who helped create them.
Often, these policies will begin with a blanket statement like ” your privacy is important to us.” However, the actual terms describe a different reality. It’s usually not too far-fetched to say that the company can basically do whatever it wants with your personal information, as long as it has informed you about it.
Theoretically, users might be able to vote with their feet and find similar services from a company with better data-privacy practices. But take-it-or-leave-it agreements for technologically advanced tools limit the power of competition across nearly the entire technology industry.
Data sold to third parties
There are a few situations where mobile platform companies like Apple and Google have let people exercise some control over data collection.
For example, both companies’ mobile operating systems let users turn off location services, such as GPS tracking. Ideally, this should prevent most apps from collecting your location – but it doesn’t always. Further, it does nothing if your mobile provider resells your phone’s location information to third parties.