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17feb what happens to your data hero
8 February 2017

Opinion: What happens to your data?

You give up more information than you think.

I ended 2016 attending a series of conferences and seminars that did their best to make me scared of what 2017 may hold. All of them involved personal data and internet-connected devices, and other people using the latter to get to the former.

At the Huawei Innovation Day in Sydney, several scientists sang the praises of big open data sets and the good that can be done. There’s little debate big data sets can be used to create better systems from saving the Great Barrier Reef to improving hospital waiting times. The idea is once you get enough data and the right algorithm you can solve any problem.

A lot of that data comes from you.

On one end of the spectrum, services like Netflix analyse your viewing habits to suggest things for you to watch. On the other, an insurance company can take data from several sources to get a better idea of your daily health and adjust your policy premiums on the fly.

If you think that’s science fiction, in 2015 an American insurance company offered a discount if customers allowed themselves to be tracked via a FitBit. But what happens if you eat junk food? That’d be hard to track, but GPS can tell where you went, phone metadata can tell if you ordered pizza or called a doctor, even sleep cycles can be estimated from the last usage at night and the first usage in the morning.

You give up more information about yourself than you think.

Our connected world is one of convenience, where ease of use is the main goal. Machine learning is making life simpler as devices learn our patterns. The problem is, to make things simpler, the devices and services need greater access to your data.

For example, new phones may soon tell you how to compose better photographs and alter the ones you take to look better. To do this, your phone (and a cloud-based service) needs to analyse your photos, and the photos of other people.

The same is true for voice commands. Any device you use voice commands on (for example, Siri or Google Voice) records and stores what you say. Sometimes these verbal commands are collected by third-party companies (rather than the device’s manufacturer) and, depending on the device, the microphone is always on.

This is not to say that you shouldn’t use these services. They can be incredibly useful. Just be aware of all the information you are sharing with companies.

Hadyn Green travelled to Sydney courtesy of Huawei.

by Hadyn Green

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