I’m sitting on the MRT when I open my Whatsapp, surprised to see a notification for a software update. Now, I’m not a person that fancies long documents, so I hastily “agree” to the terms and conditions in order to get to my messages. I don’t see any clear changes in the layout, so I assume it was an update to fix program bugs. No biggie. Later that day, I come across an article that has me speeding back into my settings trying to reverse what I had done. What I had failed to realise was that Whatsapp had lured me into giving them permission to sell my personal data in order to improve ads and product experiences on Facebook.
There is no doubt that warnings concerning the management of user information were somewhere in Whatsapp’s terms of service, but the reality is that most people do not even open terms and conditions before agreeing to them. York University communications and technology teacher, Jonathan Obar, noticed this phenomenon and conducted a study to see how far these contracts would go in terms of privacy violation before users didn’t agree to their terms of service. Obar, along with the University, created a fake social media network called “NameDrop”, and included hidden clauses within the contract such as a statement that users must give up their firstborn child to the developer, and that the app could share user data with the National Security Agency. They found that 98% of students did not come across the NSA or first born clauses and that 74% of students did not even read the terms of service, to begin with.
The York university scenario was intended to prove a point; that we must take precaution when agreeing to contracts to secure our information. On the surface, it is singlehandedly the users who are at fault for not understanding the conditions before accepting them, yet the fact that companies expect all users to go over the entire terms and conditions is quite idealistic. Just as Obar put it, “terms and conditions are deeply flawed, if not an absolute failure.”
Terms and service policies are typically lengthy. In fact, a Norwegian campaign group took the time to read aloud the terms and conditions for several mobile applications, which took them a whopping 30 hours to complete. In comparison, it takes around 70 and a half hours to read the bible aloud, cover to cover, at an average rate. In addition, most of these contracts are filled with incomprehensible language. It is extremely unrealistic that users would understand the many clauses in these documents if they were to read them, or that they would analyze these policies with a lawyer every time they want to sign up for a website or download an application.
Companies understand all of this, which is why they bank on the fact that most users do not read through their contract and end up user information that they can then manipulate.
Being a regular social media user, I’ve encountered many instances in which I have felt that my private information has been compromised; apps suddenly having access to my location, my microphone, and many times, even my Facebook, when I have no memory of giving them such access. Many of us are oblivious to the infinite number of ways companies use and directly benefit from our personal information on a day to day basis. Relationship statuses, locations, activities, favorite books, things you all thought were only visible to your online friends, are handed over to and screened by ad companies to provide users with ads that are appealing to you. In 2013, Facebook ended up with over $3 billion in advertising revenue, minuscule in comparison to Google’s estimated $36.5 billion.
The most frightening part of it all is the fact that applications and websites have the right to change their terms of service at any given time. Services that may be “clean” in respects to privacy violation, could abuse your information with a click of a button. Once you “agree”, you’ve agreed to all the changes that could take place in the future; you’ve agreed to the end of your privacy.
SAS Junior Jane Li shared that she has “accepted that fact that we don’t have privacy.” She shared that she “goes into these situations knowing that her privacy is going to be compromised” and that “it’s inevitable in the 21st century.” Because of this, she “might as well get full usage out of these applications and services.”
As Jane clearly stated, there is not much we can do. Reading through the terms and conditions is impossible, yet the applications that violate our privacy are essential to communication, a key part of our social identities in today’s world, which ultimately leaves our hands tied.