Is GDPR The Big Opt-Out?

All the emails you’ve been getting recently about your online privacy are a great opportunity to assess your situation. The good news is that you can opt-out.

The bad news is that you can’t.

The GDPR (for General Data Protection Regulation) is legislation passed by the EU intended to help its citizens protect themselves by demanding some transparency and control over use of their data. Since many companies are based in Europe, as are many customers, businesses are sharing the new rules with everyone, just to be safe (and perhaps in anticipation of similar regulations coming to the US?).

If you’ve read one of the emails, you’ve read them all: We’re required to give you more visibility into things, and now you can opt-in or out of certain practices, and your privacy is very important to us.

The good news is that I bet you’ve received emails from companies you didn’t know were interested in your data, let alone possessed it; I know that I sure did, and I’ve used the opportunity to quit, delist, and otherwise unsubscribe from them.

A few of the emails have actually requested that I re-opt-in to a relationship I had no idea I was in, and by ignoring them I think that means we’re no longer a thing.

Though most of the emails are simply notifications that companies are living under new rules, you can usually follow a link to review how they’re explaining what they do. This is also good news, though in the it’s-better-to-know-the-truth sort of way, since the ways data are collected and applied are too numerous to list here.

However, it’s a good opportunity to limit whatever you can limit, even as you realize just how monitored and manipulated our lives have become, all in the name of “improving services” or “enhancing online experiences.”

This is the core of the bad news, too, for a number of reasons that need to be listed here:

The explanations are incomprehensible — It’s 2018, and most privacy policies still read like they’ve been written by lawyers focused on making sure you can’t complain about something vs. explain anything. The descriptions of activities are guarded and circumspect, and loaded with words and phrases that scream out for more detail (I’m struck by how often data are shared with third parties deemed “necessary” for business functions, or similarly acquired from external sources).

It’s intended to obfuscate — One thing that’s clear in nearly all of the newfangled privacy policies is that businesses don’t want you to know what they’re doing with our data, since if they thought the practices would inspire us, they’d have marketers create the content. So it begs the question: What are they so scared that we might discover?

There is no privacy — Companies around the world incessantly collect, share, and use our personal data; the details might change, and GDPR give users some assurance that details useful to hackers don’t circulate easily (ID or credit card numbers, for instance), but everything else is fair game. You can go and tell website XYZ that you want to limit sharing data on, say, your visits, or what they’ve picked up from your mobile phone’s GPS, but the company is still going to use it (and it’ll get collected on some server that isn’t utterly impervious to a breach).

Your data aren’t private, and never will be.

That’s because they’re doing much more than creating better shoe ads — Every company is not only in a race to get better at deciding what you or I want to know or buy, but they want to learn how to control the content and circumstance that move us in those directions. The biggest online service providers are leading this charge, but it’s the wet dream of every marketer, and information is the raw resource powering such endeavors.

There is no way to keep your data private from the machine learning and evermore complex algorithms or, eventually, true AI, because the long-range goal is to transform our relationships from independent actors with online services, to symbiotic systems in which we are remote collections of datapoints.

So we can’t truly opt-out — And that’s perhaps the fact they really want to obfuscate. As Pink Floyd once said, Welcome my son, welcome to the machine.

Not telling us this truth could be the biggest opt-out of them all.