How do data professionals feel personally about being part of the “data set”?

Recently, I watched The Great Hack, a Netflix documentary that explores the not-so-pretty side of social media and the data it collects and leverages, and ended the program feeling a bit violated. The documentary details the ways in which institutions, including the government, use our personal data to influence, advertise to, and manipulate our decisions.

There was a line in the documentary that resonated with me. It stated that people don’t realize everything they do digitally does not simply evaporate; every move, every search, every click is recorded. Sure, I have entertained and even embraced “Suggestions” or “Related items” on online shopping platforms; but my nature never allowed me to think that the goal would be to manipulate or lie to me in order to stir my emotions or push my buttons. Silly, in hindsight.

The professor featured in the film is now spear-heading a movement around “data privacy rights,” and it made we curious about how my colleagues – professionals in the data and tech industry – feel about privacy/visibility into their lives via data. Do they take extra precautions, knowing what they know about the ease of access to data? I reached out to everyone and asked them a couple questions to appease my curiosity:

As a professional in the data industry, how do you feel personally about being part of “the data set”? Do you seek advanced privacy, embrace the transparency, or something in between?


I was surprised and intrigued by the variety of opinions I received in response. Some quick-fire replies included, “I don’t use my real email address for things,” “I don’t put photos of my child’s face on social media,” and “if it helps to improve AI [artificial intelligence], I think it’s great.”

Outside of my workplace, I know someone who goes to extreme lengths to be omitted from the data set. He will not use the most popular electronic products and platforms, only sends messages in a secure and private app, and does not use credit or debit cards, among other things. Heck, he doesn’t even register a residential address! While this sounds a bit extreme, I understand his view a bit more after watching the documentary and respect his desire for privacy. His precautions are not for any reason other than that he simpy wants to preserve his right to privacy. He isn’t hiding anything, and he isn’t a conspiracy theorist.

One of my coworkers, Business Intelligence Engineer Jake Van Hecke, provided a very thoughtful perspective in response to my workplace poll. Have a look:

“I’d be really upset about being part of the data set if I thought there was something I could do about it.

Surrendering privacy for a moderate increase in comfort doesn’t feel good, but the social pressure and convenience of these applications is almost too much to ignore. Even if I didn’t have a cell phone, there is still too much technology listening around me to avoid altogether.

The social pressure, as a single 27-year-old, to be active on Instagram, to create a desirable profile, outweighs the forfeit of some privacy for me.

I can ignore ads. Everyone has had that scary advertisement story, where they were talking about an item, and then said item appeared in their Instagram feed as an advertisement. I can ignore that.

It actually makes me want to buy the product less, because I know what they are doing to place that ad.

However, this is where my opinions get more conspiracy-theory-like. Companies like Facebook and Google are always 'listening' to what I’m saying or doing and know more about my habits and influences than I probably know about myself. They can use that information for their own corporate growth, they can sell that information to less morally-lead organizations, or they could sell that information to the government. Going even deeper into conspiracy theory land – they could be the government, started by the CIA. But, this isn’t r/conspiracy, and as fun as elaborate conspiracies are to read, I definitely don’t subscribe to all of it. I’m not okay with them listening necessarily, but like I said, there isn’t an alternative. Technology is an integral part of our lives. And, if they do look through my Google Home data, it’s mostly me asking about the weather and how long to I need to bake chicken.

Personally, there is one set of data that I will never be comfortable with a company owning – my DNA. I’ll never do a private DNA test through [platfiorms like] Ancestry or 23andMe.

Putting my tinfoil hat back on: Although I don’t want insurance companies knowing if my DNA has indicators to genetic disease that would allow them to increase my rates or even deny me coverage, I also don’t want rich billionaires, with kidney failure, knowing that I’m a perfect match and waking up on a boat in the Pacific with a scar on my hip.

Okay, maybe that’s a little crazy… but DNA data is something that I’d prefer to keep to myself.

To summarize, my thoughts on being part of the data set is mostly ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ (but with a tinfoil hat)."

His very first statement hit me hard right off the bat. It certainly feels like our personal data is not really in our control, and I must admit that I stand next to him on not sharing my DNA; it can’t get any more personal than your own unique genetic makeup!

If I were to respond to my own question as to whether I seek enhanced privacy, I have made some small changes that make me feel as though I’m in more control of my data, such as deleting the Facebook and Messenger apps, and only running Facebook on the web (in Mozilla FireFox). I am also migrating away from certain search apps and sites as well. I do become conflicted regarding sacrificing the conveniences and proficiencies of certain apps and certain technology companies, only to have the same privacies I aim to protect compromised by a different one. It leaves me feeling discouraged and vulnerable.

Nonetheless, I think it is very important to keep conversations about data privacy rights continue to gain traction. I wish the visibility of data was made clearer to individuals and I believe that we shouldn’t need to jump through hoops to be excluded from the data set. We all agree to Terms and Conditions without hesitation, but don’t scrutinize what they actually mean for visibility into our lives. Perhaps more open dialogues about data and how it is used to influence the general public will encourage others to put some thought into better protecting our data.

What are your thoughts? Do you take any measures to shield your data or enhance your privacy?



Meet the Author

Regan Hammetter is Manager of Data Partnerships at Continuus Technologies. As a relatiponship manager, Regan excels at fostering positive, mutual relationships with partners and anticipating client needs. When she's not nurturing partnerships at Continuus, you can find Regan training for a marathon or hanging out with her sweet pup, Pepper.