Honey, what is our monthly Prime Vulnerability Moment bill?

by Vikram Venkatasubramanian

No, this is not a blog about mental health issues. But fair warning, the creepy nature of what we are about to discuss here could cause you distress.

We leave endless and copious trails of data daily with our devices, apps and internet habits. That we know. We click ‘I Accept’ with great abandon when confronted with a ‘Terms of Service’ and ‘Privacy Policy’. Why? Because it will take us 76 days of effort to fully read every Privacy Policy we click through each year! So, what happens with all that data about us and does it get used against us? Leading question obviously, but how real are the costs to our wallets and lives?

Here are 10 real life scenarios:

  • Jeanne is out with friends on a weekend evening. It is 11 pm and her phone is dangerously low on battery. The price for a ride back home on a ride sharing app is significantly higher
  • Robert goes on a strict diet and works hard at sticking to it. As he drives home from work, he gets a notification that his favorite kind of donut is on special today just as he approaches the donut shop
  • A teenaged girl orders odor-neutral lotion and a major retailer sends coupons for pregnancy related items to her home
  • Your browsing history on health related items is used by insurers to determine your health insurance rates
  • A camera inside a connected refrigerator reveals your dietary choices and is used to determine your insurance rates
  • You are turned down for a new credit card based on past history of paying for marriage counseling, therapy or tire-repair services
  • Your average driving speed and frequency with which you exceed the speed limit is used to determine your car insurance rates
  • You are running late for your flight but have to order a last minute gift for your cousin and the price of the flowers you order is significantly higher
  • You are booking a vacation and you book a flight and then try to book a hotel room and the prices are different for the hotel room
  • You are excluded from seeing ads for new housing options based on your race or ethnicity

These are not just examples of how data about you CAN be used but this is the reality of how data about HAS been used! So, why does this happen? Companies promised us that they anonymize our data when they sell it to third parties. Well, the reality is that there are over 1500 demographic data points about each one of us that are sold and traded on data exchanges by data brokers and other entities such as social media players, ad networks, etc. Research has proven that with 15 demographic data points, 99.98% of Americans can be individually identified! So, there goes all our anonymity - and we thought we were smart about using ‘Incognito Mode’ on our browsers! Every device, app and service leaks a few data points and these are aggregated and sold and cross-referenced.

Roger Clarke coined the phrase ‘Dataveillance’ back in 1988 (would have been more apt if he had done it in 1984) and called out the consequences of systematic monitoring of people’s actions or communications through the application of information technology. A prime consequence of this is what marketers look to exploit in each and every one of us multiple times a day – our Prime Vulnerability Moments. These are moments when you are most susceptible to certain decisions and ones at which companies try to reach you and/or exploit you. The consequences of discrimination and exclusion are not hard to see from this point on.

I write this today because I strongly feel that we cannot have a conversation about security in the connected home without a strong focus on privacy. Companies collect our data thousands of times a day, buy our data from various sources, sell them to aggregators and data brokers. We have no clear idea of who has access to our data and what they do to protect it. We do know that thousands of companies get breached every year and we have gotten desensitized to these breach notifications. My intent is to re-awaken these sensitivities in all of us – the impact to our wallets and lives is real and when these companies lose this data to hackers, it can even be dangerous.

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