Data! Friend or Foe?

A deep dive into data and how it can affect our privacy. Can we trust platforms to keep our data private? What are we really risking by clicking "agree" to the terms and conditions of the services we love?

Zuza Dziwok

The Data We Create 

Data, data, data… Friend or Foe?  

We live in an age of data revolution. Data collection is no longer limited to structured research, it is collected daily through online platforms such as Alphabet, Meta or Open Ai, and we, the average citizens, are the prime producers of data. And where do we produce this data; online!  

Let me ask you, have you checked your Instagram today? Posted a photo? Commented on a reel?  

Have you googled something today? What is the weather like? How do I get to George Street?   

Everyone one of these online interactions have been tracked! The generated, captured, copied, consumed content and the time spent on it. Every interaction was logged into a data point. (Duarte 2023) 

Did you know Facebook has 98 data points (categories of data) for each user? (cite) 

Every day as a global society we produce 328.77 million terabytes of content. (Duarte 2023) That means around 15.87 TB of data is created by one person every day. You, on average, would create 15.87 TB of data every day! (Peronto, 2024) 

And who owns that data? The platforms which provide you with the services you use. This data becomes your payment for the “free” service. That data becomes the digital currency of the digital revolution. So, this begs the question, is this data a friend or a foe? How is this data used and are we okay with this?  

Are Our Lives Private?

To answer this question, we need to dig deeper into the concept of privacy: 

What is privacy? 

The simple dictionary answer is, “the state of being alone and not watched or disturbed by other people” and “the state of being free from the attention of the public” (Oxford University Press. n.d.). However, that is the boring answer, which is way too simple for this loaded question, because what is privacy really? 

(Burst. 2017) 

If we circle back 100 years, privacy was a very different idea than it is today. That is of course because we remove that small event called the digital revolution from the equation… Not that small really. 

With the digital revolution the concept of privacy extends to many other terms; Platforms, Users (consumers), Data, and algorithms. The list goes on.  

Let me quickly explain these terms. Platforms are all the digital spaces that the big companies provide us with! They are Google, PlayStation, Apple, Instagram etc. Platforms are the spaces provided to us to interact with. So, Meta would then be the provider of Instagram’s and Facebooks platform infrastructures. (Flew, 2021) 

There are two users of platforms, part of a multisided market. You and I are the users, the consumers of the services, and advertisers are the users of the data collected from the services. There is an interesting paradox here though, while we are the consumers of services, we are also the producers of these services. We create content, interact with content through comments and likes, form communities within the services, chat on these services, etc. Through being users, we create quantifiable data (called datafication from data sets which can analyze in terms of velocity, volume and variety), but we don’t see the collected data directly. (Flew, 2021) We see an embodiment of the data through tailored content. The more we use the service the better it becomes at moderating the space for your interests and beliefs. (Suzor, 2019) 

Therefore today, our privacy concerns are not limited to trespassing on our lawn. Otherwise, we are concerned about anything and everything which sits on our accounts, our devices and even our digital interactions. Some of the biggest infrastructures in the world, such as Facebook or Instagram (owned by Meta), Google (owned by Alphabet) or a newer service, ChatGPT (owned by Open Ai) are free to use.  

Here, we need to ask ourselves, how is it possible for platforms to offer free services in a world ruled by the exchange of goods; capitalism. The reason for this is because we are indeed paying, the difference is we pay with data instead of money. (Flew, 2021) The platforms sell the data collected from their first user group (the consumer) to their second user group; the advertisers. They then use the acquired data to create targeted marketing for people who are more likely to purchase their products. Thus, creating a data-value chain. (Li. 2019) (BTW: that’s why today, anyone can be a successful business owner! 

Shoshana Zuboff offers a new class for capitalism; surveillance capitalism, which she defines as, “Human experiences as free raw material for translation into behavioral data.” Meaning that instead of the traditional exchange of material currency, these platforms charge their users through collecting their data. That is, personal information or user interactions on the platform, including but not limited to the content they share, the time they spend on different elements/content of the service, the conversations users have privately as well as publicly on the platform etc. (Flew, 2021) 

At this point, you might be asking yourself, “but is it legal for these platforms to sell my data without my consent?”. You’re right, NO! The thing is you DO give them consent with the terms and regulations essay you scroll through and click “I agree” when you first sign up for a service. 

(PhotoMix Company. 2020) 

Bigger Than Me and You 

Interestingly though, we often think of these services as individual entities, but if we look at the platforms that own them, it all equates to only a few major players. Meaning that message you sent to your friend about going to the coffeeshop down the road tomorrow, is datafied (changed into a data point) within a massive monopoly (meaning they hold an overwhelming market share) and then sold to advertisers that can then advertise products or services to you based on that geotag for example. (Flew, 2021) Scary right?  

What this means is that we are living in an age of platformization where platforms curate what we see online, control media distribution, facilitate communication (through allowing those free services for interaction and content production) and therefore play a role in political economy (Flew, 2021).  

You can look at the image below to better see what I mean by having a few major platforms owning most services we use at an everyday basis:  

(Shapiro. 2024)

Taking all this information into consideration, the official definitions for privacy which are in the Oxford dictionary become outdated. Not only that, but the concept of privacy also becomes more of a controversial idea than a clear statement. Terry Flew, proposes that privacy is no longer an adequate term for what we are talking about and proposes a distinction between privacy (as we know traditionally) and digital privacy – the new multi-facade governance issue we are facing with the rise of the ongoing data revolution.  

Privacy is a super complex topic to wrap your head around, also because your data is protected in various ways. Indeed, you have some control over it, but the country you live in also has power in regulating privacy laws. Some countries are better, and some countries are worse at it. Some countries have their citizens in mind when regulating privacy laws, and some have a different agenda. Nevertheless, it all boils down to data; collecting it and distributing it.  

So, let’s dive a little deeper to understand it. Jose Van Dijck discusses 3 core elements of the data revolution; datafication, Dataism, and dataveillance. The first, as I explained earlier, is how we transform social action (based on any online factor) into quantifiable data points which we can then use to track users and predict their behavior. The second is the belief that all human behaviors can be tracked through online data collection, and finally, dataveillance is the monitoring of citizens based on their online data. (Dijk, year, as cited in Flew, 2021). All in all, our individual existence and personality is distributed as a currency and later translated to enhance our online participation through tailored content. On the one hand terrifying, but on the other hand when you are looking for a new dress on google, you can find that idea pink summer dress very quickly instead of sifting through the billions of clothes being produced yearly.  

Using digital services definitely has its pros and cons. Through Dataism we have tailored content just for us. Services allow us to stay connected with our friends and the larger world and we can learn anything we want in a matter of seconds. Things that were not possible 100 years ago. As an abstract theory, it sounds alright, but let’s look at it in practice.  

Guts or Glory? Chat GPT! 

In 2022, Open Ai released their ai service called Chat GPT, this can be a fantastic tool for making work more efficient. Just in 2 months there were 100 million active users. This service is an algorithm which uses millions of data points to be able to produce an answer or any sort of content in a matter of seconds. Not only can that information identifies you (it’s not anonymous) it can now be used to generate an answer to someone else’s prompt. The internet, and the internet holds way more information about you than you think. 

Basing an entire platform on information gathered on the internet is also a problematic idea. (Crawford. 2021) Chat GPT is a service which uses artificial intelligence, it uses the information its fed to create new information. The issue since it relies on information gathered on the internet, it is governed (guided) by this information, therefore it is shaped by existing politics and culture. (Crawford, 2021) Which, let’s face it, we have not figured out yet! 

Furthermore, when you input a prompt into Chat GPT, that prompt is new data that the service adds to the algorithm. So, suppose you ask Chat GPT to grade your paper? Or ask for advice about an intimate health problem? Those are new data points, that are now stored in the algorithm. Not only can that information identifies you (it’s not anonymous) it can now be used to generate an answer to someone else’s prompt. (Gal. 2023) 

(Gal. 2023)

Now, the scariest part, what if Chat GPT has a data breach, and an unknown person or company steals that data? That could never happen, right? Think again, it already happened. Not only did hackers get access to user prompts, but they also got access to their first names, last names, billion address and last four digits of their credit cards. (Poremba. 2023) Now that finances are involved it feels a little more serious, right?  
That is only because it’s easier to see the direct impact of someone seeing your financial details. But don’t be mistaken, other information can also be used to identify you, besides the point that Chat GPT plagiarizes your prompts for other users to read (and no you are not given credit). (Gal. 2023) 

Big Names, Big Problems – AT&T 

Another data breach that was exposed recently is with AT&T services where data from73 million was affected. This breach exposed information such as birthdays, social security numbers, phone numbers, and account numbers. Anyone! AT&T confirmed this breach when the data was found surfing the dark web. (Herald Sun. 2024) Who has that information now? Who can access all that about you?  

(Herald Sun. 2024) 

It is no wonder that between 1998 and 2018 the concern for privacy with the rise of computers and the internet rose from 54% and 91%. Furthermore, only 9% of surveyed people were confident that social media was protecting their data. (Flew, 2021) So if that is the case, why do continue using these services? 

It’s interesting because we trust companies to keep our information private. We sign terms of use documents thinking that they are there to protect us. It is quite the opposite though; terms of use documents are there to protect the services we are using from being sued and the power is held by the companies to do whatever they want. (Suzor, N. P. 2019) For instance, when they sell our data, or if there is a data breach revealing our information.  

Corporate Friendships – Enforcing the Monopoly Ecosystem 

The examples I set forward are extreme cases, but I think they illustrate what is at stake well. There are data breaches in social media and streaming services too. Just recently, it was revealed that Facebook was showing Netflix private user messages. Which Netflix undoubtably used to enhance the recommendations we get shown when looking for a new show to binge. It is still unclear whether Netflix paid Facebook for this information or not, if they did though, it amounted to around 100 million dollars. (Maya. 2024) Another thing to consider is that what 100 million dollars for your information, but did you get a cut? 

This may seem less harmful, but this also means now two platforms possess and use the data that we only allowed and shared on one platform. In all three examples we can see that privacy isn’t as simple to assess as it may seem at first glance. Data and privacy are extremely complex concepts that have many layers to explore.  

Should we Reconsider?

 Think about the information your prompt on Chat GPT. Think about the information AT&T has about your account. Think about all the private messages you sent to your friends. Were are they between you and Josh, or were they between you and these platforms and algorithms that sort, categorize and distribute them?  
Concluding, I’m sure you understand the benefits of using online services, and the benefits that come with data collection for selfish reasons of having tailored content and staying connected with the world. I also hope that reading through this blog made you consider the other side of the spectrum face on. My question is, with all this data being collected, are there no better ways to use this data for a humanitarian cause rather than financial gain? 


Crawford, K. (2021). The Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs of Artificial Intelligence. New Haven: Yale University Press. 

Duarte, F. (2023). Amount of Data Created Daily. Exploding Topics. 

Flew, T. (2021). Regulating Platforms. Polity 

Gal, U. (2023) ChatGPT is a data privacy nightmare. If you’ve ever posted online, you ought to be concerned. University of Sydney. 

Herald Sun. (2024) AT&T Confirms Data Breach Affected 73 Million Customers. Video. 

Li, W.C.Y. Nirei, M. Yamana, K. (2019) Value of Data: There’s No Such Thing as a Free Lunch in the Digital Economy. Rieti. 

Maya, D. (2024). Netflix reportedly paid $100 million to Facebook to access users’ private chats. TechNext. 

Oxford University Press. (n.d.). Privacy. In Oxford Learner’s Dictionaries. Retrieved from 

Peronto, R. (2024). How Much Data Is Created Per Day. EdgeDelta.,15.87%20TB%20of%20data%20daily

Poremba, S. (2023) ChatGPT confirms data breach, raising security concerns. Security Intelligence. 

Shapiro, E. (2024) Media Universe Maps 2020-2024. Eshap. 

Suzor, N. (2019). Lawless. The Secret Rules That Govern our Digital Lives. Cambridge University Press 

Burst. (2017). [Photograph of surveillance camera]. 

PhotoMix Company. [Photograph of a phone with google logo].

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