The Grey World of Your Personal Data

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

We all get spooked those times when an ad pops up in our social media feed or a news site that’s related to something we just mentioned in a conversation with a friend or colleague. Or because we clicked on a subject and now we’re inundated with related ads. We know this is because we’re being tracked wherever we go online. We know marketers are collecting harvesting and personalizing as much as they can with our data. That’s just the marketing side of your data. Much more lives out there. It’s a grey area that’s hard for us to wrap our heads arounds.

There are two primary areas where grey data is collected on people. There’s the mythical government one and then there’s the hidden one.

I call this grey data, because you can, if you try hard enough and want o spend endless hours doing so, get a hold of most of that data, depending on where you live. If you’re in China or Russia and you try, you’ll probably end up in a very small room with some unsavoury people. It’s also grey because it’s all very messy and not well interconnected.

Hollywood and TV shows would have you think that governments have all kinds of data on us and that there’s some main data centre where this is all held and some grey bureaucrat can pull up everything about you with a few keystrokes. In some autocracies, they sort of can. But not really. In this instance, I’m going to focus more on Western democracies.

First off, there is no central database where all your data is kept by government. Conspiracy theories abound on this, but they’re easily debunked. Why? First, Cost. Economics. Second, laws. Third, ministerial rivalry, a tradition of bureaucracies.

Integrating that data across every government department and agency, then storing it, managing it and working through who has access to what is far beyond our information management capabilities and would stretch and IT services team beyond their capacity today, to even manage it. Just keeping up with the daily volume of data entered going into one system is itself an insane task.

The two factors that have the most impact on why this isn’t realistic have to do with humans and the very culture of bureaucracies themselves. Anyone who’s worked in any level of government will understand inter-departmental and inter-agency rivalries. Information is power. In a bureaucracy, it is a system of reciprocity, like money. Governments may talk about budgets, but a hidden budget is the value of information. It is powerful and can be used to negotiate things between departments. We see this the most with intelligence agencies and militaries. Prime example? The information not shared between intelligence agencies leading up to 9/11 And no, 21 years later, they’ve not gotten much better.

The other factor is law. Privacy laws and how data is dealt with in democracies is a constant source of angst. I’ve worked with various governments developing policies on using Big Data. Making just one seemingly simple change to how data is dealt with can take several months to a year or more. Most people would be quite surprised at how complex it is in reality. It’s not Big Brother is Bumbling Brother.

Where we should be more concerned is with corporations. This is the hidden one. And while you might think first of social media platforms and search engines like Google or Bing, a lot more of your data is held in the murkier world of credit companies and data exchanges or data/information brokers.

These are companies like Equifax, Explorium, Acxiom, Epsilon and even Oracle. There are others. They buy data from Google, Bing and others. Some buy social media data in aggregate. They’re not doing anything illegal. Some have been around pre-internet era. They have everything from political views to your shopping habits. Some have suffered some significant data breaches as well. They will again.

They’re grey because unless you’re a large corporation that can afford to buy their data, it’s hard to get a hold of it yourself. Some offer ways you can tell them you want to opt-out of being targeted for collection. It’s not easy. A lot of this data is sold to companies developing Artificial Intelligence tools as well. These AI companies only get aggregate data and the information brokers themselves have extremely strict rules about who can get personalised data and there are strict regulations, outside the USA, on how that data can be used. In America, the State with the strictest privacy laws is California.

Outside of America is of course, the GDPR laws of the EU. Scandinavian countries are quite strict and Canada is bringing in a significant update either in late 2022 or early 2023.

We have very little idea of what’s actually collected about us, or the industry around data. And it’s getting more complex and sophisticated all the time. Don’t worry about government, they’re a mess. Where we should all be concerned is how private industry is using our data.



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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious