Companies that buy and sell data – data brokers – already do this.
They collect and combine billions of data elements about people to make inferences about them.
These inferences may seem innocuous but can reveal sensitive information such as ethnicity, income levels, educational attainment, marital status, and family composition.
A recent study found that seven in ten smartphone apps share data with third-party tracking companies like Google Analytics.
Data from numerous apps can be linked within a smartphone to build this more detailed picture of us, even if permissions for individual apps are granted separately.
Effectively, smartphones can be converted into surveillance devices.
The result is the creation and amalgamation of digital footprints that provide in-depth knowledge about your life.
The most obvious reason for companies collecting information about individuals is for profit, to deliver targeted advertising and personalised services.
Some targeted ads, while perhaps creepy, aren’t necessarily a problem, such as an ad for the new trainers you have been eyeing up.
But targeted advertising based on our smartphone data can have real impacts on livelihoods and well-being, beyond influencing purchasing habits.
For example, people in financial difficulty might be targeted for ads for payday loans.
They might use these loans to pay for unexpected expenses, such as medical bills, car maintenance or court fees, but could also rely on them for recurring living costs such as rent and utility bills.
People in financially vulnerable situations can then become trapped in spiralling debt as they struggle to repay loans due to the high cost of credit.
Targeted advertising can also enable companies to discriminate against people and deny them an equal chance of accessing basic human rights, such as housing and employment.
Race is not explicitly included in Facebook’s basic profile information, but a user’s “ethnic affinity” can be worked out based on pages they have liked or engaged with.
Investigative journalists from ProPublica found that it is possible to exclude those who match certain ethnic affinities from housing ads, and certain age groups from job ads.
This is different to traditional advertising in print and broadcast media, which although targeted is not exclusive.
Anyone can still buy a copy of a newspaper, even if they are not the typical reader.
Targeted online advertising can completely exclude some people from information without them ever knowing.
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