Modern-era big brothers

Google, Facebook hoard too much private data

Concerns are rising over the dominance of Google and Facebook as the world’s biggest data collectors, as the two platform business operators continue to expand their presences both in the real and virtual worlds.

Few would refute that Google and Facebook users have taken advantage of the firms’ advanced and convenient technologies whose key driving force has been billions of global users.

For instance, Google Maps offers geographical information for almost every corner of the planet, allowing tourists to pinpoint any specific location with only a smart device.

But at the same time, however, people are more than shocked when realizing that the platform titans can trace their activities in detail through GPS tracking, including what users do not want to remember for long.

Even if users change their smartphones, Google Maps remembers everywhere they visited in the past, sometimes sending unexpected notifications for some places they may want to erase from memory.

What might be scarier is that the web-mapping and location-tracking service is just one part of the big data-collecting machine, as Google is also a dominant leader for a variety of other services ― including its search portal, email and Android app marketplace.

The firm interconnects those daily-use services to strengthen its dominance as the world’s most-influential platform service provider. For instance, if a Gmail user pays for an airline ticket, Google can link the relevant information ― including the departure time or airport gate number ― to the Google Calendar app. All these processes are done automatically through Google algorithms.

This makes their trips a lot more convenient than when they only had paper tickets to check their flight information. But they are less likely to notice their private data is stored in Google’s database, enabling the company to become a powerful “big brother” of the modern era.

For a similar reason, global technology magnates such as Tesla founder Elon Musk and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates expressed deep concerns over artificial intelligence (AI) which is based around a vast amount of big data.

“I think the biggest risk is not that the AI will develop a will of its own,” Musk said last year in a media interview. “But rather it will follow the will of people that establish its utility function.”

He said AI and data-based platforms may start with good intentions to make more accurate predictions about certain tasks, but no one knows if they may generate unexpectedly bad outcomes as they grow and develop in unpredictable ways down the road.

Facebook is another industry-leading platform generating tens of billions of dollars in revenue each year by analyzing datasets from users. The firm’s major revenue source is its on-demand ad platform. The company boasts a systemized target customer analysis tool that can fit advertisers’ needs.

Due to this practical and highly effective promotional tool, startups with low budgets often put top priority on Facebook ads, rather than other traditional ad platforms such as conventional mass media.

How could the U.S.-based social network giant develop such an accurate data analytics platform? The secret lurks in its huge global subscriber base ― the number of monthly users approaches 2 billion people, which makes the “Republic of Facebook” the world’s most populous place even compared to China.

By collecting their datasets, the company can provide a specific user-centric analytics algorithm system.

But it also has its downsides, in terms of the right to be forgotten.

Even if a user creates his or her second Facebook account without any overlapping basic data from the original account such as phone number and email address, Facebook can spot the original and inform the first account of a possible friend.

The algorithms operated after analyzing data from the firm’s user base may raise concerns the platform is also blocking the right to be forgotten.

“There needs a certain level of vigilance for the rapid rise of big data and AI amid the lingering concerns over the modern version of big brothers, even though such info-tech powerhouses’ services are for the good and convenience of people,” an info-tech industry source said.

“No one can be free from the records of whom I was in the past, as data keeps piling up and remains somewhere on the web such as the Google search portal or internal databases of other platform giants. That would be good for some but terrible for others.”

Via Lee Min-hyung

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