When you type a question into a search engine, you might imagine it disappears into cyberspace. But that’s not the case.

Author: Erica Zucco

THE BASICS

Most large consumer technology companies use data collected by users to improve current services, create new products and target ads. That includes Google, which has created pages to explain what data it collects, why, and how to choose which pieces of information users want the company to store.

(To read more about what Google says it collects and why, click here.)

Google allows users to download their collected data. KENS 5 Eyewitness News found that the collection can include past search queries, Youtube searches, audio from home devices and more.

(To download your own data, click here.)

Google says it does allow users to edit their personal information and who can see it; delete activity, past locations, browser history and cookies; and set which activity history is stored.

(To learn more about the process, click here. To set your activity controls, click here.)

GO DEEPER

Google is just one of many companies that collect data, and few consumers understand the extent to which their behavior is being analyzed. Using technology to predict consumer behavior, create new services and sell products is nothing new. San Antonio-based Pit Crew IT CEO Eric Murcia says it can even happen at the grocery store.

“[The IT] department can tell you: If we put strawberries at the front of the store and we change them from 99 cents to 98 cents or 97 cents, what’s the magic number?” Murcia said. “They can tell you exactly the point at which strawberries will sell more because people perceive it as a good value.”

Murcia says data is becoming an increasingly valuable commodity.

“Information is power and money these days, that’s where it’s all at,” Murcia said. “The only way to not be a part of that is to pull the plug and not exist on the internet.”

That’s become difficult in a world that relies on technology for education, commerce and communication.

“We are data machines in this world, everything that we do we usually have to use technology in order to do it,” said Debra Innocenti-Placette, an attorney for San Antonio-based law firm Goldstein, Goldstein, Hilley and Orr. “Technology has become the infrastructure, or the plumbing for business, for personal life, for everything. And we’re also living in a time where data is highly valuable. Business models for companies are built off of data and the analytics resulting from the data, economies now are built off of data, we have applications and websites who give away services because their monetization model is to accumulate and sell data.”

She says that while some countries have a more substantial framework for what companies can collect and how they can use it, the United States is, in some ways, still playing catch-up.

“We have a very piecemeal legislative framework for privacy law,” Innocenti-Placette said. “Unlike the EU that has some comprehensive laws that we can look to, businesses when they are starting up have a patchwork of legislation they have to look at and comply with. So there’s protected healthcare information, there’s protected financial information, educational information, all of these are covered by different statutes and now we have states who are stepping up and creating state legislation for statutes because we don’t have a comprehensive federal statute- so first, there’s that patchwork. One of the gap fillers of that patchwork is the Federal Trade Commission that polices deceptive trade practices, unfair and deceptive trade practices.”

She says if consumers really want to understand what’s currently being collected, they have to read the fine print.

“I hate to say it but you have to read those privacy policies, you have to scroll down to that website and click the link and do some investigation,” Innocenti-Placette said. Unfortunately this is something that consumers have to do some work on because often this work is not readily available.”

Attorney Cynthia Eva Hujar Orr, also of Goldstein, Goldstein, Hilley and Orr, says without restrictions on how data can be purchased, shared and used, personal freedoms could be at risk.

“I think we need to, as citizens, in a free and democratic society- protect our rights,” Hujar Orr said. “Protect them because we need to continue to enjoy free speech, free press, free association, the freedom of privacy.”

She says without clear federal laws on emerging issues, states may choose to approach them in different ways; and she urges caution about the limitations of data.

“The states are stepping up to the plate to increase our rights by enacting state laws that are more technologically advanced and provide us that kind of privacy,” Hujar Orr said. “That data you think is just serving you and providing you services or relevant information about products you might want to purchase and sending you information about the kind of music that you like to purchase- can also be collected to monitor where you are, where you’re going, who you’re interacting with- and that data can be misused. It’s not as specific and precise as to say exactly what address you’re at and that it’s you and not just your phone and that you spoke with a particular person that’s using another device. It’s not that precise, and yet it’s being used to tell people, in a courtroom, where the stakes are extremely high, where you’re being accused of a crime- against you. When the data really can’t say that.”

For now, Innocenti-Placette says it’s partially up to consumers to make choices about what they share.

“We’re kind of balancing a lot of rights in connection with that accumulation and the data,” Innocenti-Placette said  “Make sure you’re aware of exactly how to use your phone. This has become life. And so you really need to invest some time in figuring out how it works and how to turn off the collection of data in your phone. A lot of apps, even if you’re not using them, they’re running in the background, collecting even location data. Make sure that you have control of this device- that’s controlling your life.”

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