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Computers and Law: Journal for the Australian and New Zealand Societies for Computers and the Law

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Zhao, Shengshi --- "What are we sharing with online private messaging and social media platforms?" [2021] ANZCompuLawJl 15; (2021) 93 Computers & Law 58

What are we sharing with online private messaging and social media platforms?

Shengshi Zhao

6 November 2020

In September 2020, the ACCC released Digital Platforms Services Inquiry Interim Report on Online Private Messaging

In the interim report, one of the key findings from the ACCC is around data collection, data tracking and limited choices and controls of consumer’s own data.

The ACCC finds that Australians’ online activity is being extensively tracked, with large platforms including Facebook and Google key recipients of this data. Online private messaging services collect a broad range of user information through technologies such as cookies, pixels and other tracking technologies.

What’s worse, is that some online private messaging services did not clearly outline the extent to which a consumer is tracked for the purpose of online advertising. The use of the information for advertising purposes is not made clear to consumers. Almost all the platforms described the benefits of enabling cookies in their Cookies Statement, emphasising the importance of cookies to improve products or for user convenience and discouraging consumers from deleting or disabling cookies. But there is little mention of the disadvantages and how intrusive these tracking technologies can be.

Often, consumers are left in the dark about how the collected information gets used and shared, and how long is the information retained for.

In one example provided, an ACCC staff member requested their WhatsApp account information in July 2020. The information kept and stored by WhatsApp includes their mobile phone number, profile photo, device details (e.g. device model, manufacturer), network provider, current IP address and previous IP addresses. They found that WhatsApp had the mobile phone numbers of all of their contacts (almost 350), and the names of every chat group they were a part of (which included group chats with family and friends). WhatsApp also stored information about their settings, including the phone numbers of the contacts they had blocked, and whether they were active on a WhatsApp desktop version.

The WhatsApp example is only one tip of the iceberg. The aggregated insights built overtime by technology giants such as Google and Facebook is beyond comprehension. It is one thing to know Facebook knows what you are posting and sharing on the platform, and quite a different thing to know all the user activities are being accumulated and analysed overtime by Facebook to build an aggregated portfolio for each user, and such aggregated insights could be shared with third parties for target advertising and marketing purposes.

In other words, social media platforms may not be sharing your exact name and email to a third party, but they share insights about you such as where you have been, your favourite foods, you frequently visited restaurants and shops, so that these third parties know your preferences and interests, and be able to send you feeds or marketing ads appealing to these interests.

But consumers had limited understanding of what they consented to. Most people didn’t know their data is being widely shared to other third parties.

The issue is even more prevalent with new products and services, including voice assistants, and augmented and virtual reality services, which allow for an increased ability to collect data on consumers. A large amount of audio is being picked up by voice assistants such as Amazon Echo because some “wake words” can casually appear in a normal conversation.

As large platforms such as iOS, Android, Facebook and Google expand their ecosystems, the ACCC also has concerns that growing ecosystems have the potential to affect competition as a larger platform can easily provide complementary products and services to attract more consumers, and be able to collect more data without anyone’s knowledge. Consumers often think they are sending a private message on Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp and forget the fact that all the conversations are shared with the platform service provider.

A picture is worth a thousand words. Equally, you can combine tens of thousands data elements together to paint a complete picture. The ACCC’s Digital Platforms Services Inquiry Interim Report on Online Private Messaging is only the first step to call for better transparency, choices and controls for consumers. Consumers need to be better informed before they join a particular platform, and they have a right to say no to particular data collection and data sharing practices. From a legislative perspective, we need to better define the realm of personal information if small pieces of unidentified data can be aggregated to identify a person, and take a closer look at what is being collected by new technologies.

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