"Next-generation privacy: why we need to do more to avoid mass datafication"

The situation

Dr Van Zalk standing in front of a College buildingWhat does sharing our – and especially our children’s – personal information mean for wider society? This is the key question that policy makers should be asking themselves, says Dr Nejra van Zalk, Lecturer and Researcher in Psychology and Human Factors at the Dyson School of Design Engineering. “While older generations may see the world as online and offline, for the younger generation there is no such dichotomy,” she says, pointing out that, across the world, 70 per cent of those aged 15-24 have access to the internet. “Their world is online, and they are far less concerned about the implications for privacy – and manipulation.”

The issue

Face-to-face social interaction is multifaceted, but social media was not designed to foster deep relationships – and few foresaw the extent to which this can have a detrimental effect on self-esteem, especially for the young. But that is not all. The more you use social media, the more information companies have about you as a person. “There is little public awareness of the collection of personal data through everyday household items such as smart toothbrushes, hairbrushes and toasters, which, when linked to apps, allow targeting of marketing, even to children,” says Van Zalk. “My concern is that young people are being turned into non-autonomous individuals who can be easily swayed without realising it is happening. The attention economy is not conducive to good mental health.” 

The opportunity

Van Zalk’s colleagues at the Dyson School of Design Engineering produced research on how much data is being collected through everyday items, and she is working with the Information Commissioner to design age-appropriate guidelines for privacy and security. “We are seeking to make policy makers aware of the mass datafication of our children. Concerns about the impact on democracy are pushing the issue to the fore of governments’ minds. But there is far less awareness of the extent to which the emotional privacy of our young people is being invaded. We need to educate our children rather than lock them up in a digital shed. Transparency is key but it is doable.” Another part of the answer may lie in introducing more paid-for services. “If I pay for a service then I have more rights as a consumer and the company is not so desperate for my attention. We must find a way to make companies accountable for the way in which they use our data.”

The challenge for policy makers

Van Zalk points out that currently there is no legislation for information protection on the most basic household items. “Awareness needs to move hand in hand with greater legislation on a global scale. It may be too late to change the way the tech giants such as Facebook are designed, but their usage is slowly changing and even dying out among the young. The challenge is to ensure the next generation of social media takes privacy concerns into account.”

Dr Nejra van Zalk is a Lecturer and Researcher in Psychology and Human Factors at the Dyson School of Design Engineering.