Society’s data ethics problem – and yours

You wake up in the morning and pick up your phone. Checking TikTok’s For You page, you notice that each new video that is recommended to you is more interesting than the previous one. You get lost in the jungle of funny videos until you notice you are about to miss your bus. You close the app and run to the bus stop, and once you’ve taken a seat it’s back to TikTok. How does it pull you in so deep?

When you watch videos, the company collects data on you. This data covers your interests, the time you spend watching each video, and the number of your likes and comments. The more intrusive applications even track your activity when you use other apps too. Your viewing experience is not improved solely by collecting the data; the data must also be analysed and processed to make it benefit both you and the company that owns the application. Currently, data can be processed manually or using artificial intelligence.

Corporate responsibility is a hot topic, and it already covers the social, economical and environmental dimensions of business. However, digitalisation calls for renewed assessment and consideration of the ethics of the data market continually evolving and expanding market in personal data. Data can be used to create personalised user experiences in many industries, but the same data can also be used by many other individuals and organisations. Open data is the public information produced and collected by public administrative authorities, companies and other organisations that has been made publicly available for free in a structured format for everyone to use. Responsible companies and other organisations transfer public data to open data services, thereby enabling the rest of society to benefit from it.

Fair and transparent data collection is at the core of responsible data use. At the same time, the risks related to the rights of consumers and the misuse of data continue to increase. That is why consumers must know their rights related to personal data.

Consuming entertaining content often feels harmless and far removed from business activities. However, TikTok and most social media platforms are primarily businesses whose mission is to generate profit for their shareholders. In the last few months, alarming information on how TikTok uses personal data has come to light, concerning both data collection and the protection of data transfers.

Consumers exchange their data – that is, their personal and user information – for the right to use applications for free. Obviously, software companies are not charities. Application development, employees, cyber security, data collection and processing, customer service and administration require a massive amount of resources. So how do these companies make their profits?

Many social media platforms do this by selling advertisements, and their business strategies are based on advertisements as well. This means that they sell advertisement space on their platform to third parties. When a consumer uses the application, a large amount of user data is saved that is then disclosed or expressly sold to third parties.

Users’ personal data can also be used to target third-party advertisements, aimed at inducing consumers to spend more. The ethical problems in all this are largely related to what companies are allowed to advertise on a platform, and how ethically they operate. Consumers should also consider the ethical aspects of their spending. Buying unsustainably produced products is hard to justify on these grounds.

And when it comes to students’ legal rights, responsible personal data collection and use is also crucial. Currently, European Union legislation grants us all the right of access to and right to be informed about the data collected on us by companies and other organisations.

To ensure that in the future consumers and students can continue browsing and using apps in confidence, clear certification and labelling related to the ethical use of consumer data are needed. Because data legislation rapidly falls behind the pace of change, legislation must be updated and developed continuously to ensure data use is safe and ethical in the future.

A data ethics checklist for students:
1) find out what data the application you use collects.
2) know your rights as an EU citizen and a consumer.
3) read the privacy policies of the applications and software you use.
4) think twice about the permissions you grant to applications.
5) do not use an app without knowing what personal data it collects, who has access to that data, and how and for what purpose it is collected.
6) If you suspect that you are a victim of a data breach, contact the Office of the Data Protection Ombudsman.

And next time, make sure you actually read the terms of use of an app or service before accepting them.

Sources: (only in Finnish)

The author is a big-time user of social media and an enthusiastic reader of privacy policies.

Jenna Rautionaho
Board Member, international students and ESU

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