In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, consumers and businesses are relying more on online services than ever before.
The UAE has lifted its ban on certain VoIP apps to enable students to attend online classes and help residents work remotely from their homes.
Be it official, academic or for entertainment, an unprecedented number of people are relying on the internet and various apps throughout the day. Given this volume and the emergence of heavy users, software companies are gathering and selling private data at an alarming rate.
Advertisers seek to target consumers with specific traits and interests. Surreptitious software — riding on the deception of free products — relentlessly monitors your actions, clicks, and conversations with the primary motive of uncovering your personal habits and interests. So that it may drop you into a “marketable and actionable segment” that is then packaged up and sold to advertisers.
Have to live with it for now
Data mining is inescapable, whether we are wary of it or not. The Covid-19 situation has caused a sudden surge in the usage of online video and audio conferencing software. Their privacy practices have gained attention since they are now being used on a daily basis. Some like Zoom claim to be end-to-end encrypted, but a closer look may tell us otherwise.
Running out of choices, we are forced to use them to share our business and personal details by which the details are mined and used for ad targeting.
Businesses are also adept at pulling in data from nearly every nook and cranny. The most obvious place is from consumer activity on their websites.
But an invasion it is
Now, we do need to concede that software does get better when it can observe its user, thereby doing something smarter for the user within a given context. Spellcheckers work this way. Their sole intention is to uncover errors and offer you the chance to correct them.
The implicit contract with the user is that all user information is restricted for this explicit purpose. This allows users to trust their spellcheckers. But this trust cannot hold when there are powerful business incentives to channel user information into consumer characterisations, sold to the highest bidder. However this might be spun, make no mistake: it becomes a flagrant invasion of your privacy.
That’s one reason why we have never followed an ad-model, even in our free products. The idea is that if businesses like it enough, they will move to the paid version as they grow.
Check on compliance
However, using a free product doesn’t necessarily mean that your privacy is being invaded. Many software providers have made the paid versions of their software free to help businesses tide over the current crisis. The key is ad monetisation.
If the company’s revenue depends on ads, they have every incentive to mine the data, and they will. While choosing a software to take your business remote, ensure you take a close look at the vendor’s security and privacy practices. A good place to start will be to see if they are GDPR-compliant.
In the last few years, the conversation around privacy has become mainstream, with governments around the world taking cognisance of the issue and implementing laws to protect the consumers. Now, at a time when businesses are forced to choose third-party tools in order to maintain business continuity, it becomes even more important to take privacy into account and not make hasty decisions that may have long-lasting impact.
— Hyther Nizam is MEA president at Zoho Corp.