The massive data collection that is penetrating every area of our private lives originates from a time when there was no related legislation, as well as in contracts we didn’t know we had made. The collection of personal data has become so commonplace that the temptation to ignore its consequences is great; since everyone else’s data is also collected, can’t we just disappear into the crowd?
However, the tools of the biggest technology and platform companies allow them to pick an individual out of any crowd, and a profile built from the data can be used to examine each of us in detail. As long as the company or organisation collecting the data is not malicious, or the country you live in respects individual rights, it can be difficult to identify the problem.
However, privacy is a value in itself. It is important for the development and well-being of every human being and enables free and critical thinking. Creativity and using one’s critical mindset require a space where one can feel safe and truly be oneself.
Big tech companies and the players in the digital advertising ecosystem offer us a purpose-driven narrative in which the storing and collection of all digital traces - visible or invisible, active or passive - is absolutely necessary to ‘keep the internet freely available’.
The narrative also includes, as an integral part, that we pay for ‘free’ services with our own data. For the explanation to be at all meaningful, we should all have a clear understanding of the terms on which we have agreed, when this has happened, and the real value of each imaginary ‘data transaction’. In order to pay, we need to have a genuine understanding of what currency is involved and what its value is in relation to other currencies, and what its use can mean in terms of losses and gains – and to whom.
To understand the mechanisms of the personal data economy, it is worth considering what kind of data is being collected about us and in what situations. Sitra has carried out a two-fold study on this issue by looking at data collection in the everyday lives of very different people.
In 2019, six ordinary Finns used test mobile phones to track their own data movements in the services they use in Sitra’s Digitrail survey project (1). This revealed in tangible terms the large-scale operation of data collection ecosystems, the countless different entities that process our data and the huge amount of data that is generated about us and stored for unknown companies to use.
In 2021, Sitra continued its research with its partner Hestia.ai, but this time focusing on the data of European policy makers and political influencers and the digipower that arises from its collection. The Digipower investigation (2) aimed to understand whether data and profiling can also be used to influence societal decision-making.
Unfortunately, despite the time difference, both projects also found that datagiants are not complying well with European data protection legislation. It is therefore important that people themselves have sufficient agency to ensure that fundamental individual rights do not have to be compromised online.
Steps towards data sovereignty
Of course, individual rights also apply to digital services. We all have a right under European law not only to privacy but also to our own data. We must also remember that it is the responsibility of adults to safeguard the privacy of children.
It is possible that if rights were more widely and actively demanded, the international data giants would also have to genuinely reform their practices and the regulatory authorities would get away with less. Now, the exercise of rights is for the chosen few and the processing times for complaints to the data protection ombudsmen, for example, are disproportionately long.
Sitra has worked with experts in the field to develop an easy and fun digital behaviour assessment tool for children, young people and adults alike. A first step towards digital - or personal data - empowerment and self-determination could be to take the Digiprofile Test. The test assesses three different things: knowledge, attitudes and online actions. The result is a personalised digital profile and personalised tips on how to manage your data.
At the time of writing, there are more than 28,000 test takers, the majority of whom are Finnish. The results are reasonably clear: of all age groups, people under 19 are the least critical of digital service providers. Not only do children and young people trust digital services far more than other age groups, they are also the least likely to act to secure their own rights to privacy and the least aware of the risks of online services.
Both exercising rights and protecting privacy require digital skills, which were already identified as new civic competences in the introduction of this guide. The key to digital agency is the broad digital literacy and competences of children and young people. But these are also needed for all other age groups and citizens.
(1) Digiprofile test, Sitra, https://digiprofiilitesti.sitra.fi/
(2) Tracking Digipower, Sitra, https://www.sitra.fi/en/publications/tracking-digipower/
Tiina Härkönen is a Leading Specialist in Sitra’s Democracy and Participation theme, Digital power and democracy project. She has had a long career in the corporate world working with data and information networks, in marketing, communications, and business development management positions. Tiina has worked mainly in the IT industry but joined Sitra in 2018 from a management and development role in customer and marketing analytics at Posti.
Artwork: Lumi Pönkä
Download the Digital Information Literacy Guide (PDF).