Is “privacy” the word of 2019?

Posted by Ivan Manchev on May 15th, 2019

Insights

The rising concerns with online privacy

Protecting user privacy was central theme in both Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai keynote at Google I/O a few days ago and Mark Zukerberg’s keynote at Facebook’s F8 last week. While Facebook is mainly talking about privacy intents, Google introduced some real improvements for protecting end users. However, both keynotes were tailored in response to a rising trend of concerns among end users about their data.

Humanity is finally beginning to understand the price we’re paying for the rapid technological revolution we’re witnessing — and it’s our data. We’re are willingly (and often — unconsciously) feeding service providers information about our lives, purchasing habits, behavioural patterns and more — and we’ve come to the point where we begin to care about this.

Thank you for the trust issues, Cambridge Analytica

The Facebook — Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018 is a horrendous example of propaganda and misinformation that led to one of the most questionable political choices for a nation in modern history. However, it also became a turning point in the public understanding of personal data and major inspiration for us to educate ourselves on protecting our data better. The emergence of GDPR — the comprehensive information privacy law of the European union came just in time shortly after that to further educate Internet users of the value of their private information.

What followed in 2018

It looks that one scandal was not enough for Facebook, so they stirred up some more. In June 2018 The New York Times broke the news that the company also signed deals with device manufacturers like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft among others, through which it shared Facebook users’ personal data. In December 2018, a bug exposed the photos of 6.8 million users to third-party developers sparkling debates about user data shared between different applications.

The Cambridge Analytica story remains a disaster, but at least it opened the eyes of ordinary people, so we started noticing rising threats to privacy and nowadays all the web giants are under scrutiny. Apple, for example, has always claimed that it doesn’t trade its users’ data, but people raised eyebrows when a journalist revealed that iPhone tracks and records every location the user has been at. Furthermore the list looks like it is hidden — it is almost 7 layers deep in the iPhone menu.

In a recent disclosure it turned out that suspicious user data collection goes beyond cookies, photos and location and it stretches to… voice. Not only do Amazon’s Alexa and Echo record and keep all voice commands generated by users, but it turned out they hand the records out to real people to analyze and improve their services. As a result, currently 41% of voice assistant users are concerned about trust, which again might be a good sign that people care about their personal data — especially when it was collected in their own homes where even the vacuum cleaners are now potential spies. Yup. In September 2018 smart home appliances maker iRobot revealed their latest Roomba vacuum cleaner robot with the ability to map the owners home…and upload it to the cloud — of course in order to help users schedule their cleaning routine and improve service, but then again, who knows what the collection of this data can lead to if leaked.

What is happening in 2019

The good news is, the future is not that dark after all. If 2018 was the year of turbulent user privacy scandals, 2019 has true potential to be the year of significant user privacy improvements.

First of all, everyone is talking about it and most importantly, CEOs like Mark Zukerberg, Sundar Pichai and Tim Cook admit there is a problem and are showing intent to do something about it.

While Mark Zukerberg is promising better privacy, no real improvements of Facebook in this direction can be witnessed yet and bitter reactions are following. A few months ago the global Italian bank Unicredit announced it will no longer be maintaining Facebook and Instagram accounts for any of its 17 local markets. The reason? The bank is not happy how Facebook treats user data. It remains to be seen if more companies and brands will follow suit and drop their massive Facebook and Instagram following for the sake of ethical treatment of users’ data.

How cringy is this?

On the other end of the spectrum we see web browsers; they’re showing significant progress towards privacy in 2019. In April, Mozilla added fingerpinting protection to its latest version of the Firefox browser (fingerprinting is a creepy method used by ad tech companies to identify a user based on multiple factors, such as the browser you’re using, the fonts you have on your computer, your operating system and whatever additional data they can get their hands on).

Later in April, Brave Software finally kicked off its alternative ad concept by rolling out Brave Ads and tying them to “payments” based on users agreeing to view those ads in the Brave browser. While this is not exactly a privacy measure, it offers something in return back to users for sharing bits of their private space and attention. Such an approach can have a positive impact on the attention economy as it “teaches” users to be more selective when “paying” with their data.

Two days ago, Google also announced major privacy improvements of Chrome, the browser used by 66% of Internet — better cookie controls that limit advertisers from tracking your activities across websites, and a new anti-fingerprint feature.

But what about ad tech?

AdEx CEO Ivo Georgiev discusses how AdEx, what’s to come in 2019, how AdEx uses Substrate, and how Polkadot & Ethereum could work together.

In the past, ad networks have probably benefited the most from reckless private data collection — from cookies to fingerprinting. Anyway, with the trend to improve browsers’ privacy settings, the way ad tech works might eventually change too.

When we started building AdEx back in 2017, we were set on creating an ethical ad network. We have had enough of the way traditional ad networks worked and treated users, advertisers and publishers. We are launching our stable advertising platform soon, and we’re actively working towards the perfect ratio between great ad targeting and not invading user data.

AdEx Network does not collect user data on our servers or match data to user behavior. To achieve this, we’re utilizing data from the target audence’s local storage. In addition to this, our advertisers can take advantage of contextual advertising — targeting users by the content they are consuming, but not by the things they are doing. Last but not least, our users’ identities are protected by cryptographic records on the blockchain (we’ll explain all this in detail in a subsequent blog post).

We expect other ad tech companies to introduce similar concepts soon in an inevitable direction towards improved user privacy and a cleaner web.

So, will “privacy” be the word of the year? Five months into 2019 we don’t know yet, but we believe it has good chances and we like that.

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