GAFA’s shadow: The dark side of convenience

  • Technology
  • Monday, 09 Dec 2019

Even when each piece of data is gathered separately, big tech can combine numerous types of data into an individual 'super profile' with detailed information on each person. — AFP

The big four American tech companies known as GAFA – Google, Apple Inc, Facebook Inc and Inc – are dot-com platforms that have led the shift toward the Internet era and provided various services to individuals. At the same time, they’ve become so large that many countries are now monitoring them more closely.

Collecting individual data for ads

"Project Nightingale", run by Google under the name of the woman who pioneered the modern training of nurses, has caused waves within the United States. Working with a nonprofit organisation that manages 2,600 medical facilities in about 20 states, Google gathers and analyses via AI patient data that is useful for treatment. According to The Wall Street Journal, Google is handling data related to millions of people, including names, dates of birth, the results of examinations and diagnoses, and prescription records.

After The Wall Street Journal reported on the project on Nov 11, Google was inundated with questions. The company has said the patient data is being securely managed under strict standards and that it will not be used for advertising purposes.

Despite these assurances, it has become clear how strong the resistance is to a tech giant collecting medical data on a large scale.

On Nov 18, the US House Committee on Energy and Commerce sought answers regarding the project, pointing out that there were serious concerns about whether Google can be a good steward of patients’ protected health information.

The companies of GAFA provide information and services through large-scale service platforms built on the Internet. In exchange for that convenience, large amounts of user data are gathered by one party, analysed, and used for advertising and other purposes.

Smartphone map apps can get information on where users went when and how long they spent there. If someone uses the search function or makes online purchases, their buying trends and interests can be determined.

Even when each piece of data is gathered separately, big tech can combine numerous types of data into an individual "super profile” with detailed information on each person, according to October testimony at a public hearing of the US House Committee on the Judiciary by Tommaso Valletti, who analysed GAFA for the European Commission’s directorate general for competition.

Phone knows what you are doing

At an izakaya Japanese pub in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, a woman in her 30s says to the man sitting next to her, "Show me your phone for a second.”

Just moments after starting to use it, she says,"Yesterday you spent about 10 minutes at a convenience store on the way back from work and got home at around 11.30 at night, right?” The woman laughs and the man is confused. "How did you know that? That’s scary!” he says.

The man’s smartphone’s map app, Google Maps, retained detailed records about such movements as when and where he was.

Google says the location information collected is not tied to personal information. It’s also possible for users to change the settings so that records are not retained, and users can delete the records. However, an executive at major US software developer Oracle Corp points out that the smartphone is a data collection device and that it knows who and where you are and what you are doing.

Around a year ago, a 22-year-old man working at a restaurant in Okinawa Prefecture stopped using Google’s search and maps and instead started using a new search engine from the US that does not retain your history. He says once he did that, the number of ads that included his interests and preferences sharply dropped.

"I realised how much of my own information I was handing over, ” he said, thinking back on this experience. "Even if there’s no direct damage from handing personal information over to big tech, the unsettling feeling of being constantly monitored by someone does not disappear.” – The Japan News/Asia News Network

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