2018 will be remembered in history as the year the digital revolution hit its first real speed-bump. The giants of the internet are monetising end-user digital behavior, and data privacy issues are having a significant and in some cases quite dangerous impact on global politics, societal ethics and even national security. But end-users are often implicit in leaks, too. Should they be blamed?

Earlier this year, it came to light that Cambridge Analytics used Facebook data without permission to target US voters in the 2016 election. But new controversies pop up almost daily, which has put the data privacy issue front and center for US and European lawmakers.

But what happens when users of a consumer service purposely make their information public, and that information could be used for nefarious purposes, such compromising national security?

The dangers of poor data privacy

A recent investigation from Dutch news site De Correspondent and Bellingcat revealed that it was possible to find out user work out location information via fitness app and activity tracker Polar Flow and match that information with the names of employees working at US intelligence, military and government buildings. The kicker: Polar Flow did not leak any of this information; nor has anyone stolen this information. These users chose to make their information public by turning off the default private data settings within the app.

The truth is, the landscape of smart apps, social networking and connected devices like smart speakers are fraught with data exploitation landmines – from data that is legitimately collected with the right privacy settings to data that is leaked or used without permission. Consumers have come to rely on services that know things about them. There’s value in personalised offerings. Yet consumers still don’t quite know how to traverse this new digital landscape and the privacy implications that go with it.

New laws like Europe’s GDPR are aiming to shore up consumer notifications and rights in this area, and it’s increasingly likely that they’ll need to become stricter.

And for their own part, technology companies need to be more proactive to helping users understand privacy settings and how information could be used.

Because privacy goes significantly further than just notifications and messaging tools.

Companies need to fully explain often why it’s important to have information and how that information makes their services better. They also need to give full control over the types of data they share and do it via tools that are easy to use and are clearly visible to the user. Just as important, data-driven companies need to study and anticipate how data – legitimate or leaked – can be used in ways that were never intended rather than continually putting out fires.

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