We’ve all been there: we’ve downloaded a new app or signed up for a new account online, only to see a permission screen. “This app will post on your behalf,” or “This site will access your contacts list.”
You must click “I agree” to the terms and conditions to move forward, and you’re expected to scroll endlessly while you read legal terms and conditions.
All too often, consumers don’t read those terms or really understand the permission they’ve just granted the company when they click “I agree.” Yes, it may be a pain to read the seemingly never-ending legalese, but you really should. One reason it is so important is because the lengthy document states what the company who owns the app or site can do with the data they will collect about you. It’s important for individuals to know what can happen to their data, especially if they blindly agree to whatever is stated in these terms.
If you look hard enough, you may find a few scary items that aren’t legally hidden in the terms and conditions. Facebook, for example, has the ability and the right to track your location at any time if you’re using its app on your mobile device, and can even map and store an image of your face (it’s how you can click a photograph to “tag” someone in the picture). Tech manufacturers can “brick” your device permanently if they find out you pirated some software. Some sites that let you upload a photograph and share it with others have the right to use that photograph or even sell it to advertisers, all without your knowledge or permission.
After all, you agreed to it.
Some of the concerns over consumer data privacy have even reached the global stage. A recent deal between U.S. money transfer company, MoneyGram, and Chinese firm, Ant Financial, owned by business conglomerate Alibaba Express, fell through over foreign interest around concerns about citizens’ data privacy. The $1.2 billion deal resulted in a $30 million termination fee paid to MoneyGram when the U.S. government shut down the deal. One thing to consider in looking at this debacle is that the personal information or identifying data would be in the hands of a foreign government which is what the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States ultimately stated as its reason for squashing the deal.
This kind of oversight from a government watchdog group does not excuse consumers from knowing what they’re giving up or agreeing to, however. It is ultimately the responsibility of every U.S. citizen—especially if they’re opening accounts for children in their households—to know what a company can do with the data before deciding to share it.
One of the most important things to remain alert specifically is with a free app or service. Think about your email provider or your favorite social media sites. If a company is providing a highly-sought after, valuable product for free, there’s a reason. It might be nothing more than making money from showing you advertisements periodically while you surf or in the sidebar of your email inbox. It could be tracking shopping behavior or monitoring how long you engage with a specific product or ad. Those may be harmless, although an annoying cost of doing business with that company.
Another way to think of it is to view your personal information and other identifying data as having value. If you sign up for a free service, it isn’t completely free is it? You are providing someone with valuable information that someone down the line will be able to convert for cash in one way or another. Now, all of this was probably scary enough to make some users swear off the internet altogether, or at least off social media and apps. But that’s not the takeaway here. What we need to remember when it comes to the internet, is that we should share with intent.
Sharing with intent means we are fully aware of the value of our personal information, where our data can end up and how it can be used, while also acknowledging that there are often reasons for these terms and conditions. If you were searching for a car seat or a stroller online, wouldn’t you prefer that advertisements in your social media feed be for sales and deals on baby items rather than chainsaws? Most of us would say yes.
But that doesn’t mean that turning over every ounce of our data is worth the few bucks we’ll save on a new crib mattress. Instead, it means we should adopt an air of caution about what information we share, what permissions we grant, what apps and websites we sign up for. If you’re not comfortable—or not even aware—with the level of privacy loss, then that might not be the platform for you