Privacy: Reality or Illusion? (Part 1)


In the age of Artificial Intelligence and Advanced Analytics, information becomes a highly valued commodity. Firms are willing to pay substantial amounts of money to obtain insights into character traits and behavioural patterns of individuals or groups. Some companies made it part of their business model to use personal information for different purposes.  For example, Experian performs background checks for potential employees but also provides services such as customer insights, data quality checks and marketing research as well as modelling[1]. According to the firm’s disclaimer, voluntary or involuntary users of their services are asked to accept potential risks to family, heirs and associates. Similarly, Equifax not only provides credit and background checks on individuals but also provides advice on direct marketing, web & social media analytics and data mining[2].

With the high value assigned to personal data, privacy becomes ever more important. Even last century, privacy was recognised as one of the human rights. According to the Human Rights Accord[3] individuals are protected from arbitrary inference with privacy and attacks against honour and reputation. Putting this into perspective, when the Human Rights Accords were written, nobody thought about internet, social media and advanced data collection capabilities.

This raises the question how well privacy is preserved today.

Privacy in Today’s Society

Convenience of Technology

Technological marvels make our lives easier and more comfortable. For example, TVs have become smart devices with features such as internet connectivity, streaming, access to personal pictures and videos, voice control, facial recognition etc. However, all these features come with a price. Smart TVs track what is being watched and which features are used. Collected information is sent to the TV’s manufacturer and associates[4]. Since collecting, analysing and storing this data requires resources and costs money, companies must have concluded that a profit can be made.

Another example is Google which provides a variety of different services such as Google Search, Google Drive and Google Maps. All these services are convenient to use and, more importantly, for “free”. However, by providing these “free” services Google gains insights into a person’s life on various levels, e.g. interests via the search history, mobility via Google maps and profession via Google Drive. These insights in turn are used for targeted marketing, trend analysis and measurement purposes[5]. In order to understand spending behaviour better, Google even entered an alliance with Mastercard which shared transactional data in exchange for several millions of dollars[6]. Conclusively, part of Google’s business model is to collect personal data and re-purpose it to enhance its revenue. Success of this model is illustrated by Google’s financial results. Advertisement is the main income source of revenue for the organisation[7]

While the list of examples is long, a last interesting example for voluntary and involuntary personal information disclosure concerns smartphones. Smartphones are very versatile devices enhancing our lives with various features including email, navigation and banking. Without a smartphone, life would be much more difficult since train schedules, banking transactions, email etc. would need to be covered by other means, i.e. the “old-fashioned” way. As mentioned, Google provides a variety of services and in turn collects as much personal data as possible. Since Google also provides the operating system Android, this applies to all smartphones running Android. In order to use Android, a user has to accept that personal data is collected. However, not only Google collects this data, 3rd party app providers running on Android collect it as well. Google even had to ban 20 apps from its online app store since these apps started to collect data from various sensors of the smartphone[8].

Public Surveillance & Government Usage

Looking at a different aspect of life, services run by the government such as public transportation and customs enhanced their personal data collection recently. In 2016, the Australian government announced that its Facial Verification Service is operational. It captures pictures from surveillance cameras and matches them with stored pictures to identify a person. It is also capable to identify a person from non-stored photos[9]. An intergovernmental agreement was signed in October 2017 giving government agencies access to this service. The agreement also specifies that the private sector will receive access to this service if they have a reasonable need[10]. Official purpose of the Facial Verification Service is to reduce cross-border criminal activities and with the expansion to other government agencies, reduce terrorist activities within Australia.

Interestingly enough, technological advancements such as face recognition make it now possible to control smart devices such as TVs and to unlock smartphones. Even payments can be made. A downside is that in case of a privacy breach, individuals will experience more detrimental consequences since a face cannot be changed like a password.


It appears that privacy in today’s technological environment is a challenge. This raises important questions:

  • Which risks arise from privacy breaches?
  • What is the regulatory environment for privacy?
  • What is a possible future for privacy?
  • What are possible actions for individuals and organisations?

These points will be evaluated in the following insight articles of this series.



First publish on Enforcd.

[1] Source Experian’s Privacy Policy page 8:

[2] Source Equifax Privacy Policy:

[3] Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “No one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence, nor to attacks upon his honour and reputation. Everyone has the right to the protection of the law against such interference or attacks. “; source

[4] For example, refer to Samsung’s privacy policy: or relevant press releases such as:

[5] Source is Google’s Privacy Policy:

[6] Source:

[7] Compare Alphabet Quarterly Results page 34-36:

[8] Source:

[9] Source:

[10] Source:

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