When I read about large technology companies like Google and Facebook being under fire – usually to do with privacy issues – it annoys me. This isn’t to say that these digital behemoths are perfect by any means, far from it. But what many fail to realise is that these so called ‘free services’ aren’t in fact free – their bread and butter relies on using your data to serve up hyper targeted advertising that ultimately generates revenue. Yes, I hate to tell you this, but these companies do not operate out of the goodness of their hearts purely to make your life better.
The fact of the matter is that these organisations are in the big data game. Every small detail they know about you collectively adds up, giving a more comprehensive picture of who you are, and what you like (and don’t like). Throw in some sophisticated algorithms and machine learning, and these companies probably know you better than you know yourself. They know your birthday, your email address, your contacts, the websites you’ve visited, and what you’ve searched for, among many other things.
But this isn’t necessarily bad. Why? Because you will always be subjected to some form of advertising or marketing. The question is would you rather be bombarded with random ‘spray and pray’ messages that are most often irrelevant or would you prefer seeing things that are more closely aligned with your own needs and interests? Personally, I prefer the latter – any day of the week. If I can store all my photos and files for ‘free’ (as in no monetary cost, but paying with personal data) then I’m happy.
When we sign up to use these online services, we (should) know what we’re getting ourselves into. But, caught up in the excitement of getting started, it’s probably fair to say that most of us gloss over the terms and conditions, and click the ‘Agree’ button without any second thoughts. I for one am guilty of this, but at the end of the day, I am fine with what I’m getting myself into.
Perhaps, as end users, we are becoming a little spoiled. When these online services launch, they often have no monetisation strategy. Their goal is to build a substantial user base. We are lured in. It’s too good to be true. Over time, these companies will continue to secure new rounds of funding – the capital investment that keeps them going. Investors naturally expect to see a return at some point, and this puts pressure on the company to start turning over revenue (and ideally, profit). To please investors, and potentially secure future funding, the company needs to offer something of value that others will pay for (even if this means compromising the user experience in some way). Most often, this monetisation model involves targeted advertising. This is when we start seeing ads or ‘sponsored posts’ scattered throughout our feeds. We protest at first, but quite quickly get used to it. Then, sure enough, we’ll freak out when we see an ad for accounting software, because whatever platform it is somehow knows that we’re looking for accounting software. So it must be spying on us, right? No. It’s just an innocent little tracking cookie that monitors your browser activity, and reports this information back to whatever service it is showing you the ad.
I guess the straw that broke the camel’s back for me to write this post has been the recent spate of articles slamming Google Home – the relatively new smart speaker device that operates via voice commands. Yes, it is always listening, but guess what? It has to in order to operate and respond to our beck and call. Yes, it sends our (encrypted) data to the cloud, but guess what? It has to for machine learning to work. These devices are only as good as the data that power them. They will never get any smarter or become more capable if they are not constantly learning from the billions of pieces of input we feed them. Remember, no one is forcing you to purchase or use these kinds of devices. If you do buy one, be cognisant of the fact that it is designed to make things more convenient (and fun) for you, which can only be done by getting to know you a little bit better.Smart devices are only as good as the data that power them. They will never get any smarter or become more capable if they are not constantly learning from the billions of pieces of input we feed them. Click To Tweet
So, next time you read about Google, Facebook, or any other tech company allegedly ‘spying on you’, don’t get yourself into a frenzy. It’s most likely written by a fear-mongering journalist who takes things out of context in order to get more attention and readership.
Content marketer, blogger, author and tech geek.